UDOT chooses gondola to address Little Cottonwood Canyon congestion

Aug 31, 2022, 9:32 AM | Updated: 7:52 pm

SANDY, Utah — The Utah Department of Transportation has elected to install a gondola to address congestion issues in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

This issue has stirred a lot of debate and received more public comment than any other UDOT project.
It has also whipped up the passion of the people because so many Utahns and visitors love Little Cottonwood Canyon. UDOT received 14,000 public comments, and the project manager said that public comments were pretty evenly divided between the gondola and enhanced bus service.
“UDOT believes that these improvements will increase the quality of life for both the residents and canyon users,” Josh Van Jura, UDOT Project Manager said.

The department conducted several studies and generated plenty of ideas over the years to improve transportation safety, reliability and mobility in the canyon.

Those studies led to three options: a gondola or two options involving bus service. In June 2021, UDOT released two preferred alternatives – a rapid bus service or the gondola – for the public to comment on.

Mixed response to announcement

“Taxpayer-funded projects should benefit all county residents, not just ski resorts,” said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, a Sandy Democrat, told KSL TV.

Harrison said she’s against the gondola and is disappointed in UDOT’s decision. She calls for better carpooling, bus service and parking reservations.

“The people at the mouth of the canyon and in this community are opposed to it because it will be an eyesore, a waste of taxpayer dollars and also be a project that threatens our watershed and our gorgeous canyon,” she said.

“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,” Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski said as part of a lengthy statement.

“We’re pleased and agree with UDOT’s selection,” Mike Maughan, president and general manager of Alta Ski Area said.

Maughan believes a gondola is the best option because it bypasses canyon’s road and can move people during bad weather.

“We have a two to three hour commutes to get out of the canyon because cars just can’t move when the road is slick,” he said. Maughan said the gondola would improve safety and make it a better experience for anyone who recreates in the canyon.

“Two years ago we had 50,000 visitors during the winter who went backcountry skiing,” Maughan said.

UDOT believed each of these alternatives world significantly cut travel time and improve the experience for everyone.

UDOT explains decision

“This is what Utah is famous for: the greatest snow on earth. We want to give people the opportunity to get up here and enjoy it, not be stuck in congestion,” UDOT spokesperson John Gleason said.

In the end, UDOT opted for what was considered the most ambitious option: a gondola that would take skiers and snowboarders from the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon all the way to Snowbird and Alta, carrying 1,000 people an hour.

“Each cabin would hold 35 people and a cabin would depart every two minutes,” Van Jura said.

UDOT would build a base station with 2,500 parking spaces near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The total capital cost of the gondola is $550 million, according to UDOT. It would also be the longest gondola in the world, at around 8 miles long.

The final environmental impact statement, available for review on the project website, is the next phase in the EIS process, which includes a 45-day public review and comment period through Oct. 17.

“We know how important this study is to so many canyon users, as the amount of public participation and comments we’ve received far surpasses any previous environmental study in UDOT’s history,” Van Jura said. “With numerous studies over many years as the starting point for addressing the transportation challenges in Little Cottonwood Canyon, we relied on the EIS process of in-depth technical analysis and environmental assessment, along with agency and public input, to identify Gondola B as the preferred alternative in the final EIS.”

Due to funding limits, UDOT says it is proposing to begin the project by increasing and improving bus service, tolling or restricting single-occupancy vehicles and building mobility hubs.

Officials said they do not plan to widen the canyon roadway, but they will be widening and making “other improvements to Wasatch Boulevard, constructing snow sheds, and implementing trailhead and roadside parking improvements, as funding allows.

“These improvements will improve air quality, protect the watershed, and increase the quality of life for residents and canyon users by reducing traffic congestion as private vehicles shift to transit.”

Snowbird general manager Dave Fields said a gondola base station built at the mouth of the canyon is the answer to long lines on weekends, power days and holidays.

“It would be a stunning ride up the canyon. Now you have revenue that could offset the cost,” Fields said. “People aren’t going to bring their in-laws in town and hop on a bus.”

On a busy winter day, more than 7,000 cars head up Little Cottonwood Canyon, and traffic jams have become problematic and dangerous.

“Every year, we’re seeing that congestion build,” Gleason said. “So we need real solutions that are going to improve the situation for everyone.”

The climbing community has also been vocal about the proposals. Climbers are worried a gondola will destroy many boulders and ruin the canyon’s beautiful scenery. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said neither a gondola nor a once-proposed cog railroad was the way to go.

“To me, it’s sort of like a Jenga game. If everything stacks up perfectly, every assumption plays out, you’re going to be fine. But you pull one piece out and the Jenga pieces fall to the ground,” she said.

Wilson proposed building user-friendly transit hubs, investing in comfortable buses, implementing tolling and carpooling and using technology to keep people moving.

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UDOT chooses gondola to address Little Cottonwood Canyon congestion