The results are in — the Utah Department of Transportation wants to build the longest gondola in the world up Little Cottonwood Canyon.
But first, it’s going to take $150 million allocated by lawmakers this year to increase busing up the canyon, implement parking restrictions and build tolling infrastructure, part of a phased approach that has three stages, the last being the construction of the gondola.
UDOT on Wednesday released its final record of decision, the latest development in the environmental impact statement that took years to unfold and resulted in contentious public comment periods, protests and meetings, where many Utahns voiced their opposition to the project.
The announcement comes nearly one year after UDOT selected the gondola B option in August 2022. However, the decision was not final, and was followed by a public comment period. Wednesday’s news simply solidifies that preliminary decision.
If funded, the gondola B option will take skiers and snowboarders on an eight mile journey from the La Caille base station located along Wasatch Boulevard up to Snowbird and Alta at the top of the canyon. It’s estimated to cost taxpayers at least $729 million, although that does not include operation and maintenance costs.
“UDOT does believe that with the population growth that’s expected, that the gondola is the alternative that provides the best mobility, reliability and safety for canyon transportation,” said Josh Van Jura, UDOT trails and group director and the project manager for the environmental impact statement. He noted that the gondola would operate in a separate alignment from the road, eliminating the problems caused by slide offs, accidents and cars with inadequate traction.
Yet scores of locals — including a handful of politicians — have protested the gondola, worried it will be a blight on Little Cottonwood Canyon, has the potential to damage the watershed, will be a burden on taxpayers and is the result of an unfair process influenced by special interests.
On Wednesday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who has been a staunch opponent to the gondola, said “a billion (dollar) investment is one that will indeed harm our community and not help it.”
“There is not financial equity with something that is expensive as a fixed gondola. The taxpayers are going pick up the bill,” said Wilson, who says it will amount to roughly $300 per taxpayer.
“That’s just not right for kids in rural Utah who will never even make it to Salt Lake County,” she said.
Carl Fisher, executive director of the local conservation group Save Our Canyons, echoed Wilson. He told the Deseret News that UDOT “betrayed public trust” and that his organization is evaluating possible legal recourse.
“The public must remain vigilant in engaging their elected officials to block funding and understand where their elected officials stand on this pork project for the ski industry. We are very disappointed, but not surprised, that UDOT and the Governor didn’t listen to local governments or their constituents,” he said.
Meanwhile, a group called Gondola Works, which includes Alta and Snowbird ski resorts, Ski Utah and CW Management — a development company started by former Utah Senate President and current State Homeless Coordinator Wayne Niederhauser and former Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless — has been pushing for the gondola. They say it’s the best solution to the gridlock at the bottom of the canyon that results in an hourslong wait to get to the ski resorts.
In an email, McCandless said the gondola option “provides the most reliable, environmentally friendly, non-surface-oriented transportation solution to provide access to the Little Cottonwood Canyon places most frequented by our community and tourists alike.”
“Lastly, I am excited about the support and commitment made by Snowbird that with the implementation of the Gondola, they will provide our community with a perpetual conservation easement on hundreds and hundreds of acres located on the north side of the canyon known as Superior Peak precluding it from being developed in the future,” he said.
According to UDOT, the project will cost $729 million. But in a plan recently passed by the Wasatch Front Regional Council, the gondola has 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.
Critics often point out the project could end up costing far more than the estimate, like the state prison.
But Van Jura put extra emphasis on the phased approach, which includes an enhanced busing system, tolling, building mobility hubs for public transportation and restricting single occupancy vehicles while it waits for funding. According to the Wasatch Front Regional Council’s plan, the gondola is will not be operational for 25 years, though Van Jura said that timeframe is not set in stone.
“We know what today’s problem is, and we’re confident that $150 million allocated under SB0002 will make a serious improvement,” he said. SB0002 is the bill passed in the 2023 legislative session that, among other things, allocates funding for the first phase.
And there’s still no guarantee the gondola will even be built — Van Jura told the Deseret News it’s possible that the first two phases could be so successful that it will negate the need for a gondola.
“Because something has been cleared environmentally does not mean that it’s a foregone conclusion that it’s going to built,” he said.
Wilson said that’s a cause for hope.
“For those of us who oppose the gondola, today is not a day of doom and gloom,” she said. “... I’m not concerned right now about phase two or three. The gondola is at minimum, as listed, 25 years away. We have 25 years ... to prove that busing will work.”
The three phases are as follows:
- Phase 1 will start with increased bus services up Little Cottonwood Canyon, which includes more mobility hubs, and parking restrictions. It will also begin tolling drivers, with an estimated cost of $20 to $30. UDOT expects this phase to be operational by fall 2025.
- Phase 2 is dependent on funding, the department says, and includes widening Wasatch Boulevard, building new snow sheds — a structure with a sloped roof designed to protect the roadway from avalanches — and trailhead “parking improvements.”
- Phase 3 is the construction of the gondola, and is also dependent on funding. UDOT says it will construct a base station with 2,500 parking spaces at the bottom of the canyon.
A gondola cabin that can hold up to 35 people will arrive at the base station every two minutes, UDOT said. Once the gondola is operating, the bus service in Little Cottonwood will no longer be available.