UDOT holds open house to gather public comments on Little Cottonwood Canyon travel alternatives

The debate between a gondola system and enhanced use of buses took center stage in Cottonwood Heights.

(Connor Sanders | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ellen Birrell, co-founder of Save Not Pave, outlines her concerns with UDOT's proposed expansion to Wasatch Boulevard in the parking lot of Butler Middle School on Tuesday. Save Not Pave recommended a new transit hub be built on 9400 South and Highland Drive instead of the gondola and enhanced bus usage proposals preferred by UDOT.

Cottonwood Heights • More than 200 residents piled into the gymnasium at Butler Middle School in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday to offer feedback on the Utah Department of Transportation’s proposed solutions to ski season traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

UDOT hosted an open house to educate the community and ask for public comment on two proposals to increase access to Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.

The first idea is a gondola system that would be based near the La Caille restaurant on Wasatch Boulevard. That proposal was floated in a draft environmental impact statement in June. The second idea is an expansion of the main road that goes up the canyon, State Road 210. That project would widen the road and allow buses to use the shoulder of the road as an additional bus lane during the peak season.

Josh Van Jura, UDOT project manager, said UDOT evaluated 124 potential solutions that were focused around mobility, reliability and safety since the spring of 2019 before settling on these final two. He reported that UDOT will begin to decide on a final preferred proposal after the end of the 45-day public comment period, which began June 25.

The cafeteria of the middle school was decorated with large posters depicting the potential costs, reductions in travel time, and environmental impact for each proposed solution. Technical experts from the U.S. Forest Service and UDOT stood by each display and answered questions for residents as they moved throughout the room.

UDOT projects that travel times through the canyon will take up to 85 minutes at peak periods if nothing changes because of the growing popularity of Alta and Snowbird.

Widening the road and adding enhanced bus service would drop travel times to 37 minutes, and UDOT estimates it would cost the state $510 million.

The gondola option would cost more to build, about $592 million, but less to operate over time than buses. Carts would hold 35 people and depart every two minutes, resulting in an average travel time of 43 minutes per person to get up the canyon.

UDOT put up a station where residents could give their comments anonymously to a court reporter and posted suggestion boxes throughout the cafeteria for those who didn’t want to speak during the public hearing.

“We want people to understand that the public input process is not a vote. …” Van Jura said. “We want people to consider all the alternatives and make substantive comments on what we missed, what we did right, and what we should also consider.”

Van Jura gave an in-depth presentation on the differences between the two alternatives before the public commenting period began. These comments have been essential throughout the entire process of considering these two options, Van Jura said. The idea for the gondola based out of La Caille emerged from the group of 6,500 comments that UDOT gathered during the public comment period last year, he said.

“We’re going to get comments that change what’s in the draft between the draft and the final [version],” Van Jura said. “We’ll make those changes and hopefully have a better document with all the input we get.”

Before the presentation started, Save Not Pave, a grassroots organization made up of Cottonwood Heights residents that opposes the expansion of Wasatch Boulevard proposed in UDOT’s alternative solutions, held a news conference in the parking lot.

Ellen Birrell, co-founder of Save Not Pave, voiced her concerns over how the expansion of Wasatch Boulevard from four lanes to six or seven would be more dangerous for residents of Cottonwood Heights. Protesters are concerned that UDOT is trying to “sneak in” the expansion of Wasatch Boulevard as part of its plan to ease access to Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“Why are we paving over the greenery we have left when we have existing arterials?” she asked, referring to highways like Interstate 215.

Birrell told reporters that there is a “myth” about the amount of traffic on Wasatch Boulevard. She said that there are only 20 to 30 days per year, during the peak ski season, when traffic bottlenecks at Wasatch Boulevard and Little Cottonwood Canyon North.

The expansion would also be more dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians, Birrell said. She said two women have been struck by motorists on Wasatch Boulevard in the past nine months, and that the proposed expansion conflicted with UDOT’s “Zero Fatalities” goal.

Save Not Pave presented a diagram that outlined its own proposed transit hub at 9400 South and Highland Drive that would allow for fast transit to the University of Utah as well as up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Aaron Dekeyzer, the other co-founder of Save Not Pave, addressed UDOT during the hearing and admonished them to not go forward with either of the options proposed in the draft environmental impact statement. He said that the department needs to prioritize the safety of residents by lowering the speed limit on Wasatch Boulevard from 50 mph to 35 mph.

UDOT did not respond to the comments submitted during the public hearing but will use the feedback in the final draft of the environmental impact statement this winter.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Tuesday that she’d prefer more buses in the canyon, in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board. She noted that UDOT includes parking for 1,500 vehicles at the gondola base. Wilson voiced concerns that the gondola would need its own bus system and said that it could be inconvenient for families to move their gear from the car to the gondola.

A virtual public hearing is scheduled July 20 from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Those wishing to comment must register in advance. Public comments can also be submitted on UDOT’s website and via email until Aug. 9.