The Utah Department of Transportation announced Wednesday that its preferred option for Little Cottonwood Canyon is to build a gondola down the 8-mile canyon.
The decision, which has been years in the making, sparks numerous questions about the future of the canyon and the Wasatch Front.
Here’s what we know and what remains unclear following Wednesday’s ruling from UDOT.
What is next for the canyon?
Wednesday’s announcement doesn’t mean the decision is set in stone.
Along with the ruling, UDOT announced a 45-day public comment period that will begin on Sept. 2 and continue through Oct. 17. To submit a comment, go to littlecottonwoodeis.udot.utah.gov. UDOT will collect those comments and later issue a “record of decision” sometime this winter.
In the meantime, UDOT says it wants to roll out smaller steps to address transportation issues, like building mobility hubs and expanding bus services. Carl Fisher, executive director for Save Our Canyons, an environmental advocacy group, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday the phased approach is one way to show policymakers that there are alternatives to solving the canyon’s transportation issues.
“If you don’t want to see a gondola up these canyons, let’s take this opportunity to embrace transit,” Fisher said.
How much will this gondola cost?
According to the EIS released Wednesday, the gondola B option would cost around $550 million, plus operation and maintenance costs of $3 million each summer and $4 million each winter.
Expanding the roadway for bus-dedicated lanes would cost the state roughly $510 million in initial capital, plus $11 million per winter in operation and maintenance costs. The wider roadway was the other option UDOT was considering before Wednesday.
Wednesday’s EIS included the estimated price tags for other options, such as expanded bus services without widening the roadway and a cog rail system. Estimates indicate those options would cost the state $355 million and $1.064 billion, respectively.
Who is going to profit from a gondola?
The two entities that would stand to gain the most from a gondola are Little Cottonwood Canyon’s resorts — Snowbird and Alta. Both would have a taxpayer-funded system to deliver customers directly to their businesses if the system gets built.
Snowbird launched a group called Gondola Works, which Alta later joined, to sell the gondola to the public as the best option for the canyon.
What groups have paid to promote the station and oppose it?
In addition to Alta and Snowbird, other groups that are a part of Gondola Works include Exoro Group, a public policy firm, and Love Communications, a public relations and marketing company.
Maura Carabello, president of Exoro Group, a public policy firm, previously told The Tribune her agency was hired by Snowbird to work on the Gondola Works. Tom Love, president and founder of Love Communications, previously said his company handles placing Gondola Works’ ads on TV, radio, billboards, social media and through direct mail.
Fields, Carabello and Love all declined to share details of Gondola Works’ finances with The Tribune earlier this month.
The nonprofit Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon opposes the gondola. The group, which is made up of four board members and a team of volunteers, has accepted donations and pays for lobbyists in the hopes of swaying lawmakers away from a gondola.
“We’ve known from day one that this is going to the Legislature, and so we’re engaging in ways to educate legislators that are involved in the decision-making process of why this is not a good idea,” Michael Marker, Friends of LCC president, told The Tribune earlier this month.
The group, which created a political action committee in 2021, has paid at least $30,000 for lobbyists since it was established, according to campaign finance reports.
Where will the gondola station go, and who owns the land?
The proposed gondola station would be located just off State Route 210 near the mouth of the canyon. The latest EIS says the base station would include a large parking structure with up to 2,500 parking stalls, a noticeable uptick from a past EIS that said the structure could hold 1,500.
Last fall, Snowbird quietly bought two parcels of land where the gondola’s base station would be located. Dave Field, Snowbird’s general manager and president, told The Tribune the resort made the purchase to ensure the gondola continued to be a viable option for UDOT.
Will there be more development around the station?
As of now, probably not, but that can always change.
Before the Snowbird purchase, the gondola land plots were owned by CW Management Corp, a development company founded by Chris McCandless, a developer and former Sandy city council member, and Wayne Niederhauser, a former Utah Senate president who now serves as the state’s homelessness coordinator.
CW Management still owns an 8-acre plot of land directly to the south and west of the gondola land plots. The land, which is inside Cottonwood Heights city limits, is zoned for single-family residential housing, according to the city’s website.
McCandless told The Tribune in July that he intends to develop the land for single-family homes rather than try to rezone the area for commercial development. He called that speculation from the public a “lovely rumor.”
“I’ve said that 1,000 times … We intend to leave the zoning just the way it is,” McCandless said in July.
Can the gondola still be stopped?
As of now, a gondola down Little Cottonwood Canyon is a ways off.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson called on members of the public to voice their concerns to UDOT in the hopes of preventing the gondola from coming to pass.
“I have a call to action to the public, and that is: please go to the UDOT website. If you share my concerns over cost and over impact to the canyon, file a report,” Wilson said during a news conference Wednesday. “Tell them what you are concerned about.”
Fisher views the phased approach to address the canyon’s transportation issues as an opportunity for public transit to shine.
“It feels like we have a real chance to see how buses can work with this phased approach,” he said Wednesday.
The decision on whether or not the gondola will become a reality lies with the Utah Legislature. State lawmakers will need to pass legislation to fund the project, estimated to cost at least $550 million in taxpayer money. Theoretically, lawmakers could pass legislation that would run counter to UDOT’s recommendation, opting for a different solution for Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Will hundreds of people be taking a gondola to Alta and Snowbird in the future? It’s hard to say for sure, but it seems likely.