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Hundreds turn the often overlooked Wasatch Front Regional Council meeting into anti-gondola protest

Council voted to include Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola regional plan, and open for public comment

SHARE Hundreds turn the often overlooked Wasatch Front Regional Council meeting into anti-gondola protest
Signs are held during public comment during a Wasatch Front Regional Council meeting in Salt Lake City.

Signs are held during public comment during a Wasatch Front Regional Council meeting in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Many protested the plans to add unfinalized recommendations from Utah Department of Transportation to build a gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Wasatch Front Regional Council on Thursday voted to release its transportation plan for public comment during an uncharacteristically charged meeting that brought out hundreds of Utahns to protest.

The contention stems from the plan’s inclusion of the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola, which the Utah Department of Transportation selected last summer as it preferred option to curb skier traffic that can often result in an hourslong wait to reach Snowbird and Alta ski areas.

The gondola is listed in the plan with a phased cost of just over $1 billion, and a 2023 cost of $391 million. UDOT’s original estimate is $550 million. The plan lists three phases — the first includes enhanced bus service, tolling and roadway modifications to Wasatch Boulevard; the second is building snow sheds in the canyon to prevent avalanches; and the third is construction of the gondola.

Board members Monica Zoltanski, Sandy mayor, and Jenny Wilson, Salt Lake County mayor, tried to remove the gondola from the plan in a motion that ultimately failed after 14-5. The five votes included Zoltanski, Wilson, West Jordan Mayor Dirk Burton, Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

The council then moved to release the plan for public comment with a 15-4 vote, Burton breaking from Zoltanski, Wilson, Dahle and Mendenhall to approve the plan’s release.

Wasatch Front Regional Council meetings rarely attract as much attention as the one held Thursday, with 130 people listening remotely, and roughly 200 people showing up in person, spilling out into an overflow room.

“We’re honestly not used to having this many guests with us,” said Andrew Gruber, the council’s executive director.

A fiery public comment period ensued, with all but two commenters voicing their concerns over the ambitious proposal.

“UDOT has not finalized that plan yet. It’s irresponsible to put it in with language saying ‘if they change it, we’ll change it later.’ What’s the rush?” said Brad Rutledge with Wasatch Backcountry Alliance.

Alta Mayor Roger Bourke, who described his small town at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon as the “gem of the Wasatch” said the project would mar the canyon and is socially unjust.

“This gondola would injure that gem. It is a beautiful spot, we don’t want this visual blight up there,” he said, adding, “The vast majority of the people in this state will never get close to that gondola, but they will get to pay for it.”

The two pro-gondola speakers, Snowbird general manager David Fields and Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty, were also part of Gondola Works, a coalition of groups and corporations who for several years now have been pushing UDOT and the public to support the gondola.

“This winter has demonstrated many days the need for the reliable transportation despite weather and avalanche conditions for a growing number of winter recreationists visiting Little Cottonwood Canyon. As we look at current traffic gridlock, delays and hazardous conditions, I can only imagine what this will become without thoughtful planning,” said Fields, pointing to the number of days the canyon has been closed this year due to avalanche danger.

After his comment, Fields was met with boos and jeers, prompting Gruber to call out “this is a civil discussion.”

A draft regional transportation plan is a long-term strategy for the region’s transportation system, set to expire in 2050. The council partners with local governments, transportation agencies, community groups and local stakeholders.

It includes things like expanding trails in the foothills and adding a lane to parts of Redwood Road. Wilson said she agrees “with 99 percent of what is represented in this plan.”

Wilson’s qualm with the plan, shared by several other members of the council, was that the gondola should not be included, especially considering UDOT has not issued its final recommendation, which is expected sometime this winter.

“It’s saying, this gondola is anticipated to be built and funded. Yes, it’s a plan, yes it can be amended, but it’s a pebble that starts at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon and it snowballs down ... as it advances, it gets harder and harder to go back and change,” said Zoltanski, adding that the plan is “not ready for your decision today.”

Other members of the council stressed that the plan can be amended depending on UDOT’s final recommendation, and said that the public comment period will give the council a chance to review and amend all aspects of the plan, including the gondola.

“I think we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t allow this council to be informed by input from the public,” said UDOT executive director Carlos Braceras.

Even though the plan that the council voted on does not approve or fund the gondola, Mendenhall described it as “a single ratchet forward in a massive process.”

“This is the only time and this is the only place I’m ever going to get to vote on a gondola,” the Salt Lake City mayor said. “... I know that you have to approve a regional transportation plan. I know there’s a lot of good stuff in it. But I can’t vote yes on that. I can’t, because this gondola shouldn’t happen.”

After the meeting, Save Our Canyons executive director Carl Fischer pointed out that gondola-adjacent jurisdictions, which have a legal responsibility to provide drinking water, were opposed to adding the project in the plan.

“This is not just a hit on Little Cottonwood. This an affront to the notion of local control that is an abused talking point regurgitated by those pining for power while saddling local communities with a massive infrastructure project that will set in motion massive amounts of development in our watershed canyons,” he said.