Buses vs. gondola: Little Cottonwood plan comes into sharper focus

UDOT unveils final two options for addressing traffic quagmire in Utah’s world-class outdoor destination.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Canyon, on Friday, June 25, 2021. Either a gondola or enhanced bus service is store for the canyon to address its traffic congestion under a plan released by the Utah Department of Transportation.

After three years of study, Utah transportation officials have selected two final transit alternatives for Little Cottonwood Canyon, the popular ski destination outside Salt Lake City that is now mired in year-round traffic congestion thanks to the growing popularity of outdoor recreation.

Enhanced bus service featuring a widened State Route 210 up to Alta is the best option for increasing mobility, while a gondola would be best in terms of reliability, according to the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), which released a long-awaited draft environmental impact statement (EIS) Friday. Both options would cost more than half a billion dollars to build, representing a major infrastructure expansion inside the narrow, scenic canyon hemmed by soaring granite walls and avalanche chutes that regularly deposit frosty tsunamis on the winding road.

Dropped from consideration was a billion-dollar cog railway, a transportation staple that has virtually eliminated private automobiles in some of Europe’s famed alpine destinations.

“While all the alternatives improve safety, it’s really the last two goals, mobility and reliability, that the alternatives fall to a lesser degree or to a greater degree, relatively,” said UDOT planner Joshua Van Jura. “That’s why we’ve identified two options for consideration to be the preferred alternative and to gain additional public feedback on.”

Save Our Canyons executive director Carl Fisher was pleased increased bus service made the cut, but still had reservations about UDOT’s narrow focus on just Little Cottonwood Canyon and just winter access.

“There are a lot of different interests in the canyon year round, whereas that gondola really only functions in the winter months. We’re glad to see that bus option being forwarded, but we are pretty concerned that they chose the road widening over the non-widening alternatives,” Fisher said. “We’re bending the management of our forests and our watersheds to transportation rather than trying to make transportation systems fit within the priority of protecting our watersheds.”

Conversely, Snowbird general manager Dave Fields was thrilled with the inclusion of a gondola in the final cut. He says the aerial option would best solve the canyon’s transportation problems with the fewest impacts and disruptions, and the ride could become an attraction in its own right.

“A bus you have to ride. A gondola you get to ride,” he said. “It would just be an amazing experience to ride gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon taking in all those views looking at Lisa Falls or toward the Pfeifferhorn.”

(Suzanne Paylor | The Salt Lake Tribune) Motorists have trouble driving in Little Cottonwood Canyon during a storm on Friday, November 29, 2019.

The Central Wasatch Commission (CWC), an intergovernmental panel representing the various counties and cities with a stake in this slice of the Wasatch Mountains, posted its response to the EIS Friday in a document titled “Pillars for Transportation Solutions.”

The commission’s foremost concern is the possibility that all the alternatives UDOT put forward hold the potential to drastically increase visitation, already exceeding three million people a year, yet the EIS’s limited scope prevented a full study of that possibility. Overuse could result in negative consequences for the environmental, public safety and water, according to the CWC.

“Additionally, over-use could negatively impact the visitor experience for both tourists and locals who seek to enjoy recreation and nature from unmanaged crowds,” the CWC document stated. “To appropriately address the risks, we believe a corresponding visitor use strategy needs to be identified and implemented to complement any existing management plans.”

The commission also insisted that whatever solution UDOT pursues, whether buses, gondola or cog rail, it should run year-round and be integrated with the Salt Lake Valley’s existing transit systems. The agency should also develop traffic management strategies that address the anticipated influx of vehicles in the neighborhoods near both Little and Big Cottonwood canyons.

UDOT has opened a public comment period through Aug. 9 and will host open houses on July 13 and 20. The agency will identify its preferred alternative when it releases its final EIS and decision this winter.

The bus option entails expanding the road so that the buses would have dedicated travel lanes, resulting in a mere 24-minute ride from a proposed transportation hub at the gravel pit on Wasatch Boulevard to Alta. Travel time would be about 37 minutes when you including parking, schlepping gear and waiting to board.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Canyon, on Friday, June 25, 2021.

“The reason it’s so much faster is because the shoulder-running buses would remove roughly 30% of the cars from the roadway,” Van Jura said. “With their own dedicated lane, they might actually be able to pass congestion in the general purpose lanes.”

He cautioned ride times would be longer when snow covers the road and sliding vehicles obstruct the road.

The expanded road shoulders would be available for cycling on days when the buses don’t need them, making this increasingly popular use safer and enjoyable, Van Jura said.

A second hub would be developed at 9400 South and Highland. Both hubs would feature parking structures with 1,500 stalls.

Should the 8.3-mile gondola be built, its lower terminal would be at the La Caille restaurant near the mouth of Little Cottonwood, where a 1,500-stall parking structure would be built. The gondola option includes the two transit hubs but their parking structures would be much smaller. The ride to Alta would take 36 minutes, with a 35-passenger gondola car loading every two minutes.

This aerial option is more reliable than bus because the gondola would run independently of the road, which is subject to slowdowns when it’s snowing. But the gondola’s 60-foot towers and dangling cables would present the biggest visual impact of all the alternatives.

“But it does have lower impacts to the watershed, to wildlife, to climbing boulders,” Van Jura said. “That’s because the only ground-disturbing activities would be the actual tower locations themselves, rather than widening the roadway shoulders for the whole length of the canyon.”

Snowbird’s Fields said it is crucial to have a system that operates in all weather conditions and a gondola fits that bill.

“[Why add] a bunch more concrete and construction in the canyon or more lanes and snow sheds when we know the gondolas work and are much less impactful on the environment. They’re better for air quality. No matter how bad and how hard it’s snowing, a gondola can move up and down the canyon,” Fields said. “We’ve seen what happens when it snows a lot. Buses get stuck like everything else.”

But a gondola would have stations only at Alta and Snowbird. Accordingly, its utility would be limited to just the ski areas whose guests account for less than half the canyon’s visitors, Fisher and other critics say.

Snowbird intends to sweeten the deal if the gondola is selected by putting conservation easements on the unused lands it holds in the canyon and by covering the fares for its passholders and employees, according to Fields.

The gondola would cost more to build, $592 million vs. $510 million, but less to operate that the bus system, so the two options’ costs over 30 years would be about the same, according to Van Jura. The gondola’s winter operations would cost $7.6 million a year, and another $3 million to operate in the summer.

Both transit modes could move about 1,000 people an hour.

Common to all the alternatives is a toll on private cars to incentivize transit use as well as help pay for operating the system. UDOT would also build snow sheds over the road where it crosses slide paths so that vehicles can keep moving when avalanches cascade off the canyon walls.

The public has until Aug. 9 to submit comments to the Utah Department of Transportation.

Email: littlecottonwoodeis@utah.gov

Mail: 2825 E. Cottonwood Parkway, Suite 200, Cottonwood Heights, UT 84121

Phone: 801-200-3465

Open houses: July 13, 4:30-8:30 p.m. at Butler Middle School with a live-streamed staff presentation at 6 p.m. July 20, 6-8:30 p.m. online public hearing.

Visit the EIS web page at https://littlecottonwoodeis.udot.utah.gov/ for details.