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UDOT recommends $550 million gondola for Little Cottonwood Canyon. Who will foot the bill?

SHARE UDOT recommends $550 million gondola for Little Cottonwood Canyon. Who will foot the bill?
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The Utah Department of Transportation released an animated video Tuesday, June 29, 2021, that depicts what a gondola system would look like in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Gondola Works

The Utah Department of Transportation is recommending a gondola for Little Cottonwood Canyon, the latest in years of deliberation over how to reduce winter traffic up the canyon, which at times leaves skiers and snowboarders stranded for hours, often backing up into surrounding neighborhoods.

If funded, the gondola B option will take skiers and snowboarders from the La Caille base station located along Wasatch Boulevard up to Snowbird and Alta at the top of the canyon. At eight miles, it would be the longest gondola ride in the world.

The public will now have a 45-day period for comment, closing on Oct. 17. The department will then select its final recommendation by winter. The UDOT website says winter 2022, although it could spill over into 2023.

“We recognize that the recommendations of the final (environmental impact statement) and the record of decision are so important to both current and future generations of canyon users. We want to make sure that we make the most informed selection possible by getting more public input,” said Josh Van Jura, project manager for UDOT.

However, UDOT also says it will take a phased approach, implementing an enhanced busing system, tolling, building mobility hubs for public transportation and restricting single occupancy vehicles while it waits for funding.

The department will also widen Wasatch Boulevard at the bottom of the canyon, build snow sheds for avalanche mitigation, and make parking and trailhead improvements, all in an effort to keep traffic moving up Little Cottonwood.

The gondola would come with a 2,500-space parking lot near the mouth of the canyon and could bring 35 people up Little Cottonwood every two minutes, according to UDOT.

UDOT says the option will cost around $550 million, although the department previously said the project would run over $590 million. That’s because UDOT decided to consolidate the parking lots in the original plan after public feedback — Van Jura says that will cut the capital costs by $42 million, and annual operational and maintenance costs by $3 million.

Whether that funding will come from a state, federal or a private entity is unclear, UDOT says. Funding from the state will require approval from the Utah Legislature.

“I would be surprised if the legislature has a mechanism to fund something at this level. I think it would be a miss, given the other community needs,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Wednesday.

It’s a contentious issue. UDOT fielded nearly 14,000 public comments, shattering its previous record, while yard signs opposing the gondola sprang up across neighborhoods in Sandy and Cottonwood Heights.

“If you ask people that live in Sandy where I represent, they’re opposed to this,” said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, a Democrat. “They’re concerned about the price tag for taxpayers, they’re concerned about the watershed, they’re concerned about it being an eyesore and the impact it will have on one of our most gorgeous recreation areas. And I share those concerns.”

The anti-gondola critics tend to be the most vocal, including local leaders like Wilson and Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski, who made her opposition to the project central to her 2021 mayoral campaign.

“I would have preferred UDOT had dismissed the gondola proposal altogether in favor of enhanced busing, but the decision to recommend a phased approach first, is prudent,” Zoltanski said in a statement Wednesday. “This will allow time to implement sensible, cost-effective solutions.”

Because the funding isn’t within the scope of UDOT’s study, Van Jura couldn’t elaborate on who would pay for the project if it doesn’t get a green light from the legislature.

Some critics worry the project will actually end up costing taxpayers over $1 billion, factoring in operational and maintenance costs and unforeseen expenses that could come with constructing such an ambitious project.

Meanwhile, Gondola Works, a coalition comprised of Snowbird, Alta, Ski Utah and several local nonprofits said the bus option — mainly the widened road — would negatively impact the watershed and be a blight on the canyon.

“We never felt that a vehicle-based solution for this canyon was the right idea,” said Dave Fields, Snowbird’s general manager, who told KSL NewsRadio it was a “good day for the future of the Salt Lake Valley, for people that like to recreate in these mountains.”

Gondola Works also includes CW Management, a property management and development company started by former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and former Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless. The company previously owned the plot of land where the La Caille base station would go, although it subdivided the parcel, selling it to Snowbird, according to county assessor records.

On Wednesday, McCandless told the Deseret News the coalition is “excited about the outcome and grateful for the process that in the end, together with the vast public involvement over 30 years, has produced a better result for all Utahns.” 

UDOT started with five alternatives and narrowed its options down to two — the gondola, and an enhanced bus system with a widened canyon road, estimated to cost taxpayers around $510 million.

A recommendation was expected by the spring, but the sheer volume of “public participation” prompted a delay, UDOT said.

According to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted in November 2021, 60% of respondents picked an enhanced bus system as their first choice, while 20% said they prefer the gondola.

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Traffic moves up and down Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News