Town of Alta considers formally opposing UDOT gondola plan

Town Council members said they want to maintain their relationship with UDOT but also want to ensure Alta’s voice is heard.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alta Mayor Roger Bourke listens as Alta Town Council member Carolyn Anctil comments during a Town Council meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

Alta Snow flurries fell and cars crawled up State Route 210 as about 20 people crowded into a small community room Wednesday evening to hear four local environmental groups address the Alta Town Council.

Together, the groups — Save Our Canyons, Friends of Alta, Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon and Canyon Guard — urged council members to formally oppose the Utah Department of Transportation’s planned 8-mile gondola.

UDOT authorized the gondola plan in July. Since then, it’s been the subject of three separate lawsuits: one filed by Save Our Canyons; another filed by the three other groups that presented Wednesday; and another filed by Salt Lake City, Sandy and the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake.

“All in our coalition recognize the lawsuits by themselves will not resolve the problem,” said Craig Heimark, chairman of Canyon Guard. Heimark also serves as Alta town treasurer, though Mayor Roger Bourke noted before Heimark’s remarks that Heimark’s advocacy is not related to his employment as treasurer.

“That requires action by our government,” Heimark continued. “The most important governmental voice is the town of Alta. You represent the area most affected — but so far, that voice has been largely silent. We urge you to make your voice heard.”

Disputes with UDOT

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alta Town Council member Dan Schilling, Mayor Roger Bourke and council member Carolyn Anctil listen to speakers during a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

In their presentations Wednesday, all four groups acknowledged that there are traffic problems in Little Cottonwood Canyon, but they asserted that UDOT’s planned gondola is not the best solution.

Former Bureau of Land Managment Director Pat Shea, with Friends of Alta, told council members that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit he is involved in don’t want to delay other transportation improvements UDOT has planned for the area, including enhanced busing outlined in phase 1 of the Little Cottonwood Canyon project. The gondola is part of phase 3.

[Read more: A timeline of the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola]

Shea argued that UDOT will still be able to move forward with phase 1 of its plans — which UDOT has denied — because their suit did not seek injunctive relief.

But the two other lawsuits filed against UDOT ask the court to “stop further action” on the Little Cottonwoood Canyon project, UDOT spokesperson John Gleason said.

“After reviewing each legal challenge, we are pausing work with significant, associated costs to reduce risk to taxpayer funds until the litigation is resolved,” Gleason added.

The presenters also asserted Wednesday that the UDOT project would cost taxpayers more than originally estimated when accounting for interest.

Gleason said in a statement that UDOT has accounted for market changes in its projected “30-year life cycle cost” for the gondola. He said its full implementation is estimated to cost about $904 million over that 30-year period — compared to the $1.33 billion estimated price tag for enhanced busing alone.

But because UDOT is combining both options for phased implementation — starting with enhanced busing, then working toward the gondola — Gleason said the Little Cottonwood Canyon project is estimated to cost $1.21 billion over the 30-year period.

“We are supportive of transportation improvements that address the issues. We do not think that the gondola is a complete answer,” Alta Ski Area president Mike Maughan said during the Wednesday meeting. “We are concerned, and want to make sure as we work through this process with UDOT and others, that we don’t bring too many people up here. We need to have the right balance.”

Environmental concerns

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers at Alta Ski Area on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.

In a letter addressed to the Town Council ahead of its Wednesday meeting, Salt Lake City’s public utilities director, Laura Briefer, also wrote that the proposed transportation projects in Little Cottonwood Canyon “pose a significant risk” to Little Cottonwood Creek’s protected watershed area, which serves as a critical source of drinking water for the Salt Lake Valley.

Briefer urged the Town Council in her letter to consider that she feels the state “did not adequately consider” the gondola’s impacts to the vital water source, violating the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which outlines the environmental considerations that require study when planning large infrastructure projects.

Gleason asserted in a statement that the gondola project would have “low impacts” to the watershed, since he said it wouldn’t add a “substantial amount of impervious surfaces” to the canyon — like roadways — and would reduce the potential for increasing stormwater runoff.

He added that the gondola would also have lower impacts to wildlife habitats in the area, because he said additional lanes or rail lines would increase barriers to wildlife crossings.

Still, UDOT acknowledged in its statement that there’s no perfect alternative to its plan that’s both low-cost and provides the most effective transportation while also creating the fewest impacts to the environment.

“We recognize that it would be a visual change to the canyon as a whole,” Gleason said of the gondola, should it be funded and implemented. “While there are impacts associated with any large-scale infrastructure improvement, [the gondola plan] best addresses long-term transportation needs and travel reliability, while minimizing impacts to the physical environment of Little Cottonwood Canyon.”

The town of Alta now has several options moving forward, Alta mayor Roger Bourke said. Council members could pass a resolution, join the lawsuit filed in part by Salt Lake City, or file an amicus brief.

Bourke proposed that the Town Council plan a work session before its next meeting in March to discuss what action it may take.

“We have a lot of working partnerships — UDOT plows our roads, UDOT does a bunch of stuff for us,” Town Council member Elise Morgan said Wednesday. “We’re not looking for something to just blast UDOT.”

“We want to come up with something that expresses our opinion,” she continued, “but does it in a very professional way. ... This is something that’s been weighing heavily on us for several months.”

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

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