UDOT makes its pick for Little Cottonwood Canyon — and it’s a gondola, eventually

The decision comes after years of analysis and input from the public.

The state’s recommendation is in, and it’s a gondola.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) said in an email Wednesday that building a gondola is the best option to solve the canyon’s lingering transportation issues in the long run. In the meantime, UDOT wants to implement an enhanced bus service, as the gondola will likely take years to build.

UDOT’s other main option was to potentially expand the roadway for dedicated bus lanes and expanding bus services up and down the canyon. Either option would potentially cost the state upward of $500 million. A 2021 estimate for the gondola says the project would cost roughly $592 million.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“With numerous studies over many years as the starting point for addressing the transportation challenges in Little Cottonwood Canyon, we relied on the [environmental impact statement] 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,” UDOT Project Manager Josh Van Jura said in a news release.

UDOT specified the best available option was the gondola B route, according to the email. The gondola B option features a central station along State Route 210. In September, Snowbird ski resort quietly bought the two parcels of land along State Road 210 where the gondola would be built.

Despite UDOT’s decision, the final say for the project will be in the hands of the Legislature, which would need to provide funding to build the gondola. In the meantime, UDOT wants to roll out smaller steps to address transportation issues more quickly, like building mobility hubs and expanding bus services.

“Currently, UDOT does not have funding to implement the proposed preferred alternative,” Van Jura said in the news release. “We are proposing the phased implementation plan to alleviate mobility, reliability and safety concerns that exist today while addressing the long-term transportation need in the canyon.”

Those incremental steps are a silver lining for some.

Roger Bourke, Alta mayor and a full-time resident of the town for over 20 years, said he was pleased to hear UDOT wants to implement the phased approach, telling The Salt Lake Tribune “that’s the only thing that’s sensible and realistic.”

“I still feel that the gondola is a very poor choice from multiple standpoints,” Bourke said. “I hope that with a flexible, phased approach, we’ll find solutions to the transportation problem in this canyon that will be satisfactory, or even superior, to anything else.”

Carl Fisher, executive director for Save Our Canyons, an environmental advocacy group, told The Tribune he’s obviously disappointed in UDOT’s decision, but said a phased approach to address the canyon’s issues is an opportunity for the public to utilize public transit.

“The fact that they don’t have funding for a gondola gives us an opportunity to really give it the old college try for buses, and to give people the chance to see how that mode of transportation will work and, hopefully, ultimately solve some of the problems,” Fisher said Wednesday. “It feels like we have a real chance to see how buses can work with this phased approach.”

The decision comes after years of other environmental impact statement drafts, numerous public meetings and thousands of public comments from supporters and detractors of the gondola. UDOT first began exploring solutions for the canyon’s transportation woes in 2018.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson called on the public to oppose the gondola, encouraging members of the public to share their concerns with UDOT.

Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski, who pledged to oppose the gondola during her run for office, said in a statement Wednesday that the new EIS was a “mixed bag.”

“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,” Zoltanski said in the statement. “This will allow time to implement sensible, cost-effective solutions like enhanced buses, mobility hubs, parking improvements and tolling before incurring massive public cost to build out infrastructure if other strategies work well.”

While UDOT’s Wednesday ruling comes as a blow to some, others rejoiced.

Gondola proponents like Dave Fields, general manager and president of Snowbird, have said building the 8-mile-long gondola is the only feasible solution for the canyon.

“I was really happy to see that after UDOT looked at all the options that they selected gondola, which I believe is the safest, most reliable and cleanest of the solutions that they were considering,” Fields told The Tribune Wednesday morning.

Michael Maughan, president and general manager of Alta Ski Area, commended UDOT. Maughan said he’s often heard people describe the gondola as a government handout to wealthy businesses, though he doesn’t agree with that assertion.

“We’re providing a service helping people to recreate, and getting here as part of their decision to come and recreate,” Maughan told The Tribune. “So the transportation improvements are really to help the general public get to and from a spot where they’re trying to recreate. It’s kind of like if you’re trying to go to a Jazz game or something else and you’re using public transportation.”

The department will conduct a 45-day public review period, which opens Sept. 2 and will run through Oct. 17. Previous EIS drafts have drawn thousands of people to submit their comments to UDOT.

To submit your comment to UDOT, go to littlecottonwoodeis.udot.utah.gov.

The department will finalize its choice and issue a record of decision this winter, according to its website.

Correction, Aug. 31, 1:15 p.m. This story has been updated to reflect the 45-day public review period begins on Sept. 2.

This is a breaking story and will be updated throughout the day.