Group suing UDOT to block work on gondola says there are ‘far cheaper commonsense solutions’

Dec 5, 2023, 6:46 PM | Updated: 6:49 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of five people and two environmental nonprofits are suing the Utah Department of Transportation, seeking to halt the construction of a gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon that they say will scar the canyon while doing little to solve its traffic congestion.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court, accuses UDOT of exceeding its authority and failing to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act by approving in July the construction of a gondola which is intended to ease traffic congestion during busy winter months when skiers flock to Little Cottonwood Canyon’s resorts.

The complaint was filed by two nonprofits, Friends of Alta and International Outdoor Recreation Asset Alliance, as well as Craig Heimark, Jeff Schmidt, Victoria Schmidt, Margaret Bourke and Kirk Nichols. Other groups have also said they are considering legal action against the gondola.

“We think this is a significant waste of taxpayer dollars as there are simpler and far cheaper commonsense solutions,” said Heimark, chairman of a coalition called Canyon Guard, during a meeting with reporters on Tuesday.

The lawsuit asks the federal court to set aside UDOT’s record of decision in selecting “Gondola Alternative B” by “seeking judicial review of UDOT’s arbitrary and capricious analysis and decision, including its failure to comply with the procedural and substantive requirements” of the National Environmental Policy Act, and barring UDOT from taking action on the gondola project until it has “fully complied” with the act.

UDOT chose the gondola alternative in July, in addition to other measures seeking to improve traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon during its busiest days. The gondola would be 8 miles long, making it the longest in the world, and deliver riders to Snowbird and Alta ski resorts when it is constructed.

The gondola is the third phase of a tiered plan to handle traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The first phase features increased bus service and tolling, while the second phase calls for a project to widen and improve Wasatch Boulevard and add new snow sheds for avalanche safety.

The plaintiffs say they want to pause the entire three-phase process, allowing for more time to review the environmental impacts and for state lawmakers to review the cost of the project.

The lawsuit cites the gondola’s estimated price tag of over $725 million (not including operating expenses), the potential cost to users, as well as its impact on the canyon’s watershed and wildlife.

“Construction of the gondola will result in over 20 towers that are over 175 feet in height. That will severely change the landscape,” Heimark said.

The lawsuit also questions whether any improvement in traffic would be significant or if it would only save “a few minutes of transport time for the average winter visitor to the canyon.” The plaintiffs also wrote that they believe the gondola’s public value is “marginal at best.”

State transportation officials are currently reviewing the lawsuit’s details, according to UDOT spokesman John Gleason. However, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said that the state is “very confident” about how the Little Cottonwood Canyon planning process played out.

UDOT’s decision came after it launched a study in 2020 that sought to reduce 30% of the vehicles that use the canyon. It received about 50,000 public comments over the past few years, the most the agency has ever received for a project.

“We look forward to having (our) day in court to discuss what happened in that planning process,” the governor said on Tuesday.

It’s unclear if the legal challenge will affect any of the gondola’s timeline, as the second and third phases are not currently funded. A plan that the Wasatch Front Regional Council passed earlier this year indicated that a gondola may not be implemented until the 2040s.

The lawsuit could, however, delay the implementation of the project’s first phase, Gleason said. UDOT is currently gearing up to increase bus service and add new tolling by the start of the 2025-2026 season, but that could be something decided by the courts.

“At this time, we do not know the full impact the legal challenge will have on our implementation of improvements such as bus service and tolling,” Gleason said in a statement Tuesday. “We will continue to assess potential schedule impacts to Phase 1 as we work through the legal process.”

Contributing: Shara Park, KSL TV

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Group suing UDOT to block work on gondola says there are ‘far cheaper commonsense solutions’