The Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola is one step closer to becoming a reality.
The Wasatch Front Regional Council on Thursday approved a massive long-term regional transportation plan, which outlines more than 1,000 potential transportation projects across the Wasatch Front over the next 30 years.
In doing so, the council adopted an environmental impact study from the Utah Department of Transportation, which outlines the costs and effects of several proposed transportation projects in Little Cottonwood Canyon — including the proposed gondola.
The gondola has not been formally approved. The 2023-2050 Regional Transportation Plan passed Thursday does not allocate funding for the proposed gondola, or any other project.
Instead, it details all “regionally significant transportation projects,” per federal regulations, according to the council.
Residents, local business owners and activists protested during public comment at the meeting Thursday, asking the council not to adopt the gondola section of UDOT’s environmental impact study — and expressing concern that by adopting it, the council was paving the way for the gondola to eventually move forward.
“As elected officials, it may not feel like you’ve been heard, but we have heard you,” said Wasatch Front Regional Council chair Dawn Ramsey, who serves as the mayor of South Jordan. “We have a responsibility to the entire region and all of the communities and residents of the entire Wasatch Front, all seven counties, for these over 1,000 projects.”
Although the council adopted UDOT’s environmental impact statement in its entirety, it did so with a caveat: by including a “statement of intent” that the council supports first prioritizing Phase 1 and 2 of UDOT’s proposals for Little Cottonwood Canyon, which are outlined in the impact statement. Those phases don’t include the gondola.
Phase 1 of the project, to be completed between 2023-2032, would implement enhanced bus service, tolling, roadway improvements, and a mobility hub. Phase 2 would implement avalanche snow sheds and trailhead improvements between 2033-2042.
Phase 3 of the project, to be completed between 2043-2050, includes the gondola, and creating base-station parking.
The included timeline is for the council’s planning purposes only, since UDOT’s environmental impact statement does not specify an implementation timeline.
At the meeting Thursday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson initiated a motion for the council to remove the listing of the gondola and its associated “Phase 3″ entirely, but adopt the remainder of the regional transportation plan and its associated air quality memorandum.
The motion failed, with only Wilson and Holladay Mayor Rob Dahle voting in favor of it. A motion approving the plan in its entirety went on to pass unanimously.
“The end result is the gondola remains in the long-term plan for the regional transportation plan,” Wilson said Thursday. “That’s not a good fact, from where I sit.”
“However, I do think that there is an interest now by all parties of making the bus system succeed,” she continued. “That was funded by the Legislature — the transit hub, bus system, tolling. I think the devil’s in the details on that, but I now want to be at the table to help make that a productive reality.”
Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said the council knows the public would like to approve the regional transportation plan without the inclusion of the gondola, but said federal regulations prohibit the council from removing elements from an environmental impact statement.
If the council were to approve the plan without the gondola, the Federal Highway Administration may not approve it after, Silvestrini said — likely delaying the 1,000 other projects included in the plan.
“People are skeptical of government,” Wilson said during the meeting. “When you say ‘file a comment, open up your computer, go find how to do it’ — you put the time into it, you put your heart into it, sometimes. And it’s like, well guess what? We’re not listening. We can’t. We’re bound. We’re bound by a lot of legalese.”
Around 20 people — including a representative of outdoor retail company Patagonia; Snowbird Ski Resort president Dave Fields; and Alta mayor Roger Bourke — shareed their opinions on the gondola during the meeting’s public comment period.
Each person was limited to one minute of time, but one commenter, Salt Lake City lawyer Patrick Shea, remained longer, standing silently in front of the council until he was forced to leave by police.
“I taught a course for two years at Westminster College on civil disobedience,” said Shea, who served as director of the Bureau of Land Management in 1997. “It’s been 50 years since I have exercised that right, and I have to exercise it today.”
Before the meeting, Shea said he hoped to educate the public Thursday on how a significant portion of their tax dollars could be spent on a gondola that he argued will only benefit two for-profit ski resorts — instead of being spent on addressing other issues such as education and mental health assistance.
Although the meeting didn’t go exactly how many who attended Thursday were hoping, Wilson said she did appreciate the “incredible” community engagement with the Little Cottonwood Canyon project.
“We see that anytime there’s a public meeting around this topic — you have a handful of people associated with the ski industry come, and then you’ve got the public saying, ‘Whoa, this doesn’t make sense,’” Wilson said.
She concluded that, in her opinion, the gondola is “not a solution that I think any of us should support.”