With the Utah Department of Public Transportation rounding the corner on its long anticipated antidote to Little Cottonwood Canyon’s traffic woes, several Utah lawmakers say the decision-making process requires additional scrutiny.

That’s according to a request for an audit submitted in November that asks to evaluate UDOT’s approval process and investigate any “inappropriate” outside pressure that could influence policy decisions.

While the request doesn’t explicitly name Little Cottonwood Canyon, UDOT’s yearslong process to find a traffic solution to the popular ski destination has many calling for a brighter lens on the decision-making process. Powerful outside interests and former politicians-turned-developers have caused concern among activists, with one group even saying a lawsuit isn’t off the table.

Meanwhile, representatives from UDOT stress a decision will be made objectively. And Thursday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox called claims that the process has been impacted by special interests “unsubstantiated,” saying that an audit in no way suggests corruption.

The Deseret News obtained a copy of the audit request spearheaded by Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, and signed by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, and Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi.

“Every year billions of dollars are spent on transportation related projects. Decisions regarding these projects have a significant impact on property valuations. Because of the potential impact, we want to ensure that the process has integrity,” the letter reads.

The request also asks the Legislative Auditor General to review how sensitive information that could influence a project is protected, and ensure UDOT’s own auditors have adequate resources. 

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It would not be retroactive, nor would it target any person or project in particular. The audit would likely take six to nine months, assuming it’s prioritized by the Legislative Audit Subcommittee at its April 13 meeting. UDOT will have already made its recommendation for Little Cottonwood Canyon by the time it’s completed.

But as the department considers two $500 million-plus options — an 8-mile gondola that would take riders to Snowbird and Alta or an enhanced bus system with a widened canyon road — Bennion wants to ensure the decision-making process, and any in the future, aren’t poisoned by powerful outside influences that stand to gain from a particular outcome.

“I just want our tax dollars to go through the benefit of our taxpayers, in a transparent and healthy way,” Bennion told the Deseret News.

“UDOT has a good process to prioritize where their projects should be going and I think that process overall is really good. And this audit would just ensure or look for any ways that there could be outside influence that would benefit certain companies or certain people,” she said.

In a statement, UDOT spokesman John Gleason said the department stands by its process.

“We haven’t been made aware of Rep. Bennion‘s request. At the same time, we have no hesitation participating in an audit. We’re proud of our open and thorough process,” he said.

What now? Will new buses or a gondola be the answer to a congested canyon?

Asked if he supports the request, Cox said, “We audit all the time, and I have absolutely full faith in UDOT and the way that they do business.”

In February, shortly after an editorial published in the Deseret News decried the gondola, Chris McCandless wrote a rebuttal, according to documents obtained through a public records request.

McCandless, who founded CW Management, then emailed Josh Van Jura, project manager for UDOT overseeing the Little Cottonwood Canyon environmental impact statement.

“If you have time, could you read our thoughts to make certain we are not stating something that is not accurate?” he wrote.

In a reply, Van Jura told McCandless that he could fact-check certain claims, but preferred to stick within the confines of the EIS.

“I hesitate to say that everything is ‘accurate’ as there are numerous items discussed that are outside the scope of the Little Cottonwood EIS. If there are specific items that you would like clarified/verified please do not hesitate to reach out,” he wrote.

Bennion says that email “absolutely” reinforces the need for an audit — correspondence between project managers and developers who will benefit from one of two outcomes of the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA process.

“We don’t want outside influences,” she said.

Gleason told the Deseret News UDOT is always available to meet with interested parties to share ideas, answer questions and address concerns regarding any projects.

“During the Little Cottonwood Canyon environmental study, we’ve met with hundreds of individuals and groups, including students, nongovernmental organizations, businesses and recreational groups. Communication is essential to the process,” he said.

McCandless could not be reached for comment.

Who supports the gondola?

The debate over how to address Little Cottonwood Canyon’s traffic problem — a reality that during snowstorms or holidays can result in the 8-mile drive taking several hours — is charged.

Behind Gondola Works, a coalition that includes Alta and Snowbird ski areas, Ski Utah and the nonprofit UCAIR, is CW Management.

The real estate company, founded by former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and McCandless, a former Sandy City councilman, recently sold a parcel at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon where they hope the gondola will be constructed. CW Management, however, is still promoting the site for the gondola’s base.

The parcel sits directly off state Route 210, less than a mile northwest from the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon and less than a quarter-mile northeast of the high-end french restaurant La Caille in Sandy.

Some of Utah’s most politically influential people support the gondola, which they say is the safest and most reliable option.

Among them is Cox, who reaffirmed he’s still leaning toward the gondola during his monthly press conference Thursday, telling reporters “nothing’s changed in that sense.”

It’s cheaper than a train, more expensive than a bus. Is it the solution to canyon gridlock?

“It’s been a while since I’ve really taken a look at it. I’ve certainly supported the gondola in the past,” the governor said.

Records obtained by the Deseret News show several politicians threw their support behind the gondola during a public comment period in July 2020.

As a state senator at the time, now Lt. Gov. Deirdre Henderson penned a letter to UDOT on July 10, 2020, calling the gondola “the most cost-effective with the longest life cycle of any of the proposed alternatives.”

“The gondola will make the canyon accessible to locals and tourists and showcase incredible landscapes,” she wrote.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, wrote similar letters to UDOT in support of the gondola that same week. So did Daniel Hemmert, a state senator at the time and now the executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity

And Niederhauser, at the time a little more than a year removed from his last day as Senate president, offered to ghost author a public comment on behalf of former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in an email to Justin Harding, who served as the governor’s chief of staff.

“I have attached a letter that can be modified to meet the Governor’s style and content. The other attachment is just some ideas that could be inserted into the letter,” Niederhauser wrote, stressing the deadline for public comment was approaching. “Would you see if the Governor is willing to submit a letter of support specifically for the gondola at the La Caille Station?”

Bennion said the support from politicians doesn’t suggest anything nefarious, and that she has faith that UDOT is taking appropriate steps to shield itself from influences. Still, she’s pushing for an audit.

But opposition to the gondola is strong. Drive through any neighborhood at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and yard signs reading “Our community has spoken, no gondola!” or “Gondola? No!!” are easy to find.

The proposal even led to the founding of Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon, a nonprofit that endorsed both finalists in the Sandy mayoral race, Jim Bennett and Monica Zoltanski, as their opposition to the gondola became central to their campaigns.

Meanwhile, local politicians like Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson want to see smaller, “commonsense” solutions like tolling, increased busing and incentivized carpooling before the state shells out over $500 million.

Wilson has taken to lobbying lawmakers against the gondola, who will ultimately have the final say on whether to fund the recommendation. She has the support of Bennion, who told the Deseret News she instead wants “more priority for education, my constituents want more priority for education than roads,” she said.  

Asked whether there’s enough opposition on Capitol Hill to sink the gondola proposal, Bennion said, “If people are listening to their constituents there should be.”

Public opinion appears to lean away from the gondola, according to a December Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

Around 60% of respondents picked an enhanced bus system as their first choice, while 20% said they prefer the gondola. About 10% said nothing should happen, while 9% chose “some other option.”

Of the 60% who favor the enhanced bus system, 37% say they want to see the road widened. About 23% said they want to see an enhanced bus system without widening the road.

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A potential legal challenge

Save Our Canyons, a nonprofit “dedicated to protecting the beauty and wildness of the Wasatch canyons, mountains, and foothills” allege the process has not been objective.

The group is awaiting UDOT’s recommendation, but says it’s gearing up for a potential lawsuit if the gondola is selected.

“I think we’re going to have to see what their reasoning and rationale is,” said Carl Fisher, executive director. He says a court challenge from Save Our Canyons “isn’t outside the realm of possibility, by any stretch of the imagination.”

“A gondola that goes through a public drinking water source, that impacts multiple recreation sites for other users throughout the canyon, that originates from private property and goes to two private businesses isn’t public transportation,” he said. “That is a private development that is being built for private businesses at the expense of taxpayers.”

Fisher points to two things. First, he claims the gondola proposal was brought to UDOT outside of a formal comment period.

Second, Fisher says, is SB277, co-sponsored by Niederhauser in 2017. Earmarked in the bill is $100 million for UDOT to identify recreation hotspots and develop traffic solutions. Little Cottonwood Canyon was identified, along with Zion National Park, Moab and Bear Lake. According to UDOT, $66 million was set aside for Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“The bulk of the money that started this process is going towards a project that originates from his property. I think that was intended, and I don’t think that is transparent, open or indicative of a fair and objective process,” Fisher alleged.

Niederhauser says at the time that money was allocated, he didn’t think the gondola was feasible. After working with UDOT, he says one of the traffic solutions was adding an extra lane to Little Cottonwood Canyon, which at the time he supported.

“The reason why that was put in there is to enhance busing in the canyon. At that time, I had no idea about a gondola,” Niederhauser said. “In fact, if somebody had mentioned it to me at that time I would have thought it was a silly idea.”

During his Thursday press conference, Cox pushed back on Save our Canyon’s claims.

“I’m deeply disappointed that any sort of unsubstantiated allegation like that would be thrown around,” he said. “Just because you don’t get your way doesn't mean that people are bad or evil or breaking the law.”

A Gondola Works sign that has graffiti on it in is pictured near Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, wants to audit the Utah Department of Transportation to see how outside influences impact the National Environmental Policy Act process. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that Wayne Niederhauser and Chris McCandless currently own the parcel of land at the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon where the gondola would be built. A company owned by Niederhauser recently sold the parcel, and CW Management is now promoting the development of the gondola there.