More UDOT gondola details: How both Little and Big Cottonwood canyons would change

The department has not yet secured funding for the actual building of the gondola, but phase one of the project is expected by 2025.

(Utah Department of Transportation) A rendering of a proposed gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Phase one of the Utah Department of Transportation’s gondola plan for Little Cottonwood Canyon is almost fully funded — but the costliest portion of the plan is not.

The department issued its record of decision recommending the 8-mile-long gondola on July 12, and UDOT project manager Josh Van Jura updated legislators on the timeline for the plan in a subcommittee meeting on Tuesday.

He said the department has secured about $211 million of the $240 million required for phase one of the plan — which includes changes to both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons — but there is still a remaining $716.1 million in capital costs for the plan’s next two phases.

Phase one also requires $17.3 million in operation and maintenance costs annually, bringing the total cost of phase 1 to about $257.3 million. Phase three has yearly operation and maintenance costs as well, and when included with phase two, bring the rest of the plan’s costs to about $720.5 million.

This means the department’s total estimated cost for the gondola project is $955.4 million, plus $21.7 million in annual operating cost and maintenance.

“We do anticipate that we can have this service up and functioning in the fall of 2025,” Van Jura said.

(UDOT) Utah Department of Transportation project manager Josh Van Dura explained costs for the department's plans for Little Cottonwood Canyon during a legislative subcommittee meeting on August 8, 2023.

Phase 1 Changes to Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon

The project’s next two phases will be implemented when funding becomes available, according to the project website. But phase one will bring 10-15 minute bus service to Little Cottonwood, additional ski resort bus stops with lockers and restrooms and a mobility hub at the gravel pit with 1500 parking stalls.

This phase will also implement tolling — in both Big and Little Cottonwood, according to UDOT’s presentation. The tolling will only be about 50 days per year from about 7-10 am, which Van Jura said are the peak hours for traffic concerns in the canyons.

The department has not yet performed revenue estimates for what profits may come in through the new tolling system.

“We recognized if we were going to toll Little Cottonwood, that may drive a lot of people to now go over to Big Cottonwood to recreate,” Van Jura said during the meeting. “So we anticipate that we would have to implement a similar solution for Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood at the same time.”

To keep up with the changes to its neighbor, Big Cottonwood Canyon would also see 10-15 minute bus service and additional ski resort bus stops. And this bus service may not be provided by the Utah Transit Authority, Van Jura said — UDOT may seek bus service from a private company, or implement hybrid services from both UTA and another provider.

UDOT started making changes as early as this summer to buy more buses, design the mobility hubs and make plans for tolling in the canyon. The latest tolling estimates could be around $20 to $30, with the hopes of reducing traffic and encouraging carpooling.

Changes in phase 2 and 3

In phase 2, UDOT hopes to implement around 3,200 feet of snow sheds in Little Cottonwood Canyon’s slide paths to protect motorists. The department also aims to widen Wasatch Boulevard in order to make sure bus transportation is prioritized over lines of cars, Van Jura said.

In addition, the department will improve Little Cottonwood’s trailheads with additional restrooms at Gate Buttress, Bridge Trailhead, Lisa Falls Trailhead and White Pine.

The gondola will be built in phase three. Construction of the gondola itself is estimated at about $370.5 million in this phase, and the department aims to also add a $99 million parking structure, improve access roads in the canyon and reconfigure the park and ride at Alpenbock Trailhead.

“I think it’s important to remember for any transit alternative to be taken in lieu of tolling, it needs to be significantly lower,” Van Jura said. “We haven’t calculated the revenue component of the gondola, but we know that there needs to be a minimal fare price to incentivize usage compared to driving your private vehicle.”

Each gondola car would hold 35 people with cabins would be arriving every two minutes, according to a news release. However, when phase three is complete and the gondola is operational, “bus service in Little Cottonwood Canyon would be discontinued,” according to the release.

“We have worked with the resorts anticipating some of these things, but I expect that will significantly ramp up,” Van Jura said.

-- Tribune reporter Jacob Scholl contributed to this story.