Last week, the Utah Department of Transportation recommended a gondola for Little Cottonwood Canyon to combat the paralyzing skier traffic that often spills out into surrounding neighborhoods.
The recommendation was the result of years of deliberation over how to improve transportation up the canyon, home to Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.
The 8-mile tri-cable system, estimated to cost $550 million, would be the longest aerial ropeway in the world. It’s been called a potential tourist attraction, a corporate handout, more comfortable than the bus, a waste of taxpayer funds, more effective than a vehicle-based solution, and a “boondoggle” by its supporters and critics, of which there are many.
So, how did we get here?
To answer that question, we must look back roughly a decade, when local leaders began taking the first steps toward solving Little Cottonwood Canyon’s winter gridlock, a problem that’s since only grown along with both Utah’s population and popularity.
2012 to 2015: Transportation solutions on the mind of Utah leaders
The recent announcement from UDOT might be the most concrete step towards a transportation solution, but leaders across Salt Lake County have been talking about how to solve Little Cottonwood’s traffic woes for years.
During the 2012 legislative session, former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, sponsored SCR10, a resolution that supported connecting Salt Lake and Summit county’s seven ski resorts, requiring a chairlift or gondola.
Next came a series of studies to develop a long-term plan for the Central Wasatch Mountains in the face of increasing visitation and a ballooning population. Transportation was identified as one of four tenets, and the Mountain Accord considered “a wide range of non auto-based options to connect Park City with Big Cottonwood Canyon” and incentives for public transit.
2017 to 2018: The Cottonwood canyons go to Capitol Hill
A number of bills made their way through the Utah Legislature aimed at sustaining recreation in the Wasatch National Forest. Two were sponsored by Niederhauser, who co-founded the real estate company CW Management that would play a critical role in the gondola’s promotion.
In 2017, the Legislature passed SB277, co-sponsored by Niederhauser, which earmarked $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.
Then in 2018, Niederhauser sponsored SB71, which made it easier for UDOT to place tolls on roadways in Utah, particularly Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.
2018 to 2019: UDOT seeks public input
On March 9, 2018, UDOT opened its public scoping period, announcing its intent to study transportation solutions for the 12-mile stretch of road from the intersection of Fort Union Boulevard, following Wasatch Boulevard to the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The scoping period ended in May and included a town hall in April, when UDOT fielded suggestions and feedback on proposals like a large parking garage at the bottom of the canyon, tolling, and at least one comment calling for a “tram from La Caille to Alta.”
UDOT then issued a revised notice of intent, extended the public comment period, then issued an entirely new notice of intent in May 2019. The department opened a public comment period from November to December 2019.
By the end of the draft alternatives comment period in 2020, UDOT had a list of 124 concepts, including different variations of a gondola, widened road and train.
2020: The La Caille base station gains traction
In June 2020, UDOT identified three alternatives — the two enhanced busing options, one with a widened road and one without, and a gondola with a base station at the Little Cottonwood Canyon park and ride.
On June 17, CW Management released plans detailing “The Villages of La Caille,” a community centered around a gondola base station, and asked UDOT to consider the 37.5-acre plot of land at the bottom of the canyon in its environmental impact statement, according to documents posted online by Lift Blog, a ski industry news outlet. Letters of support from both Snowbird and Alta ski resorts were included in the plans.
CW Management would eventually purchase the La Caille property. However, the company subdivided it, selling the parcel slated for the gondola’s base station to LCC Base Property LLC, a Snowbird subsidiary, according to county records.
Quail Run Development, owned by CW Management, still owns the surrounding land, which is zoned for single-family residential homes. Chris McCandless, former Sandy city councilman and co-founder of CW Management, told the Deseret News the company does not plan on rezoning.
That following November, after nearly 7,000 public comments, UDOT released an addendum to their initial report that included two additional proposals, a gondola and cog rail, both stemming from La Caille.
Politicians take a side
During the public comment period in July 2020, several politicians threw their support behind the gondola with the La Caille base station.
Records obtained by the Deseret News show Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, at the time a state senator, 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.”
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.
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.
Around this time Gondola Works took shape, a coalition of groups including CW Management, Snowbird, Alta, Ski Utah, UCAIR and POWDR, Snowbird’s parent company. The group would go on to fund pro-gondola ads on radio and television.
2021 to 2022: Bus vs. gondola
On June 25, 2021, UDOT released its draft environmental impact statement, narrowing the decision down to the La Caille gondola and the enhanced busing project with a widened road.
What followed was a 70-day public comment period that resulted in nearly 14,000 submissions, shattering UDOT’s record.
The anti-gondola sentiment gained momentum among Utah’s politicians, with Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson telling reporters she didn’t like either option, but took issue with the gondola in particular. Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski also told the Deseret News that her victory in November was in part due to her opposition to the gondola.
A few Utah legislators voiced their opposition to the project in 2021 and 2022 as well, including Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, who called for an audit of UDOT.
Then in April, UDOT announced it would delay the recommendation, due in part to the massive volume of public comments.
UDOT picks the gondola. What’s next?
UDOT announced the gondola B option from La Caille on Aug. 31. However, it will be years before Utahns potentially see towers in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
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. The public can submit a comment to littlecottonwoodeis.udot.utah.gov.
However, UDOT officials also say they 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.
Where that funding will come from is currently a mystery. UDOT says it could be from the state, which would require approval from the Legislature, the federal government or private entities. It could be a combination of all three, and it’s unclear how long it will take to secure the funds.
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 effort to keep traffic moving up Little Cottonwood.