After what could be the most contentious meeting to date, the Wasatch Front Regional Council on Thursday voted to approve a regional transportation plan that includes a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon, despite the Utah Department of Transportation not yet giving the project an official green light.

However the gondola was included with some conditions, after a motion passed with unanimous support that approved the plan while emphasizing a phased approach to the future of transportation in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

It passed after Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson proposed a motion to remove the gondola from the plan, which ultimately failed after only receiving two “yes” votes, one from Wilson and one from Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle.

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Specifically, the council supports prioritizing the first two phases — phase one is increased busing, widening the road and tolling private vehicles in both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. And phase two is building snow sheds, designed to protect the road from avalanches.

Under the motion, those two phases will be implemented and evaluated before advancing to phase three, which is the construction of the gondola and its base station. That aligns with the current environmental impact statement released by UDOT.

The gondola is listed in the plan with a phased cost of just over $1 billion, and a 2023 cost of $391 million, putting the overall price tag at nearly $1.4 billion. UDOT’s original estimate is $550 million. However, that doesn’t include the various operation and maintenance costs that spans years.

Jory Johner, Wasatch Front Regional Council director of long range planning, talks about the Regional Transit Plan (RTP) during a WFRC meeting at the WFRC in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 25, 2023. The WFRC voted against removing a Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola from the plan. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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. 

The future of Little Cottonwood Canyon is a charged issue, evident during Thursday’s meeting where roughly 100 people packed into the chamber at the Gateway Mall.

Patrick Shea, after addressing the council, walked into the middle of their tables and stood quietly out of protest for the remainder of the public comments, refusing to leave; another man shouted “lock him up” after Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty spoke in favor of the gondola. A chorus of applause would often follow members of the public who spoke against the gondola, and boos followed the few pro-gondola speakers. “Thank you, thanks for listening,” one woman said sarcastically before storming out of the meeting.

“People are really losing faith in government. I think we see that across the country, and this is truly an opportunity for the Wasatch Front Regional Council to step up and do something about that,” said Brad Rutledge with the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, during the 20 minute public comment period.

A man listens during a Wasatch Front Regional Council meeting about the Regional Transit Plan (RTP), and whether or not to remove the gondola from the plan, at the WFRC in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Despite the majority of public commenters who showed up to oppose the gondola at the meeting, the WFRC voted against removing the gondola from the Regional Transit Plan (RTP.) | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“We tell ourselves we live in a democracy ... the people are supposed to have some sway. With respect to the gondola, the will of the people has been expressed,” said Alta Mayor Roger Bourke.

“I hope that you err on the side of listening to people on this issue — that you do not put this into the proposal and you slow this down,” said Kael Weston, former Democratic candidate for US Senate. “... Tax dollars can be better spent on potholes in their area rather than a gondola.”

Rafferty, Snowbird General Manager Dave Fields, and CW Management founder Chris McCandless — whose organizations are all a part of Gondola Works, the group pushing the project — were the only three who spoke in favor of the gondola.

“This winter demonstrated better than ever the need for a transportation system in Little Cottonwood Canyon that does not rely on vehicles,” said Fields. Rafferty said he supports the gondola and UDOT in general, commending them for “a process that I believe UDOT has been very diligent about.”

But the overwhelming majority of public commenters spoke against it, some representing groups like Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, Save Our Canyons, or the outdoor retail company Patagonia.

Carl Fisher, Save Our Canyons executive director, gives public comment on the Regional Transit Plan (RTP) opposing a gondola during a Wasatch Front Regional Council meeting at the WFRC in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Despite the majority of public commenters who showed up to oppose the gondola at the meeting, the WFRC voted against removing the gondola from the Regional Transit Plan (RTP.) | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Ultimately, the plan was approved with the $1.4 billion project, which at eight miles would be the longest gondola in the world.

Though some members on the council may not approve of the gondola, says Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, removing it from the plan risked jeopardizing the 1,000 other projects that it outlines.

“If we had voted to exclude the gondola, it would not have killed the gondola. ... All that would accomplish is litigation, delay, and the effect of that on our fast-growing state would delay projects that are necessary to improve congestion and air quality,” Silverstrini told the Deseret News after the meeting.

The basis for that concern was a legal memo obtained by the Deseret News that argues if the council omits certain projects from the plan, the Federal Highway Administration could deny the plan in its entirety.

Joe Ivory Mattingly, a resident of Little Cottonwood Caynon for 34 years, gives public comment on the Regional Transit Plan (RTP) opposing the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola during a Wasatch Front Regional Council meeting at the WFRC in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Despite the majority of public commenters who showed up to oppose the gondola at the meeting, the WFRC voted against removing the gondola from the Regional Transit Plan (RTP.) | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“In short, WFRC would risk losing its authority over the scope of the RTP if it omits from the Plan a project that other stakeholders view as regionally significant,” the memo reads.

However the memo’s legal standing was questioned by Wilson who said her counsel reviewed it and identified “holes.”

“We, in our review with legal input, did not find a relevant statute or regulation that states specifically that the EIS overrides an MPO’s (Metropolitan Planning Organization), in this case the Wasatch Front Regional Council’s, discretion in deciding what or what cannot be in an RTP,” she said, before voting on her failed motion to remove the gondola.

“There’s no federal law saying you can’t exclude that from the regional transportation plan. ... That is the whole basis for this vote, and there is no federal law saying that,” said one man as he angrily left the meeting.

The gondola was selected by UDOT in August after a lengthy environmental review, where more than 13,000 people submitted public comments during one of the periods.

However the final record of decision has not been released yet, meaning the gondola plan as we know it could be subject to change. It is expected to come this summer, a UDOT spokesperson confirmed Thursday.

The regional transportation plan, or RTP, “reflects the current status of the federally-mandated EIS process; if that process ultimately results in a modified approach, the RTP will be changed to reflect that modified approach,” according to council documents.

Patti Hobfoll holds up a sign protesting a Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola as people make public comments on the Regional Transit Plan (RTP), and whether or not to remove the gondola from the plan, during a Wasatch Front Regional Council meeting at the WFRC in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Despite the majority of public commenters who showed up to oppose the gondola at the meeting, the WFRC voted against removing the gondola from the Regional Transit Plan (RTP.) | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News