Gondolas are sexier, but buses are a better cure for canyon jams, Robert Gehrke says

You can tell UDOT which you think is the best solution for traffic jams in Little Cottonwood Canyon

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

On any given Saturday or Sunday during the winter months, the scene is the same. A long line of idling cars filled with skiers — on some days more than 20,000 — waiting and waiting and waiting their turn to drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon to reach Snowbird and Alta.

It will only get worse as our valley grows.

Left unchanged, the Utah Department of Transportation estimates it will take nearly 90 minutes to make the eight-mile drive from the mouth of the canyon within a few decades.

So for the last two years, UDOT has been studying solutions and on Friday narrowed the options to two.

The Contenders

One option is widening the road up the canyon to add dedicated bus lanes and dramatically expanding service. Buses would leave every five minutes and run direct to Snowbird or Alta, avoiding stops along the way.

The other option is to build the world’s longest gondola, running on a cable suspended above the canyon and departing every two minutes. The cars would hold up to 35 passengers (including the standing room) and are heated and have Wi-Fi and phone chargers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Both scenarios include parking garages and mobility hubs where people would load onto either the buses or the gondola to travel up the canyon.

Hands down, a sleek floating gondola is sexier than a stodgy old bus, but are they the best solution?

Gondolas cost more, but ...

It would cost an estimated $592 million to build the gondola, compared to $510 million to expand the highway and put more buses on the road. But it would cost more to operate the buses during the winter — $11 million per year compared to $7.6 million.

Operating the gondola during the summer would cost another $3 million. There is no plan to run the buses during the summer, and the extra lanes could be used by cyclists.

The buses cost more to operate, in part, because each one needs a driver, the buses wear out and are more expensive to replace, and would need to be stored somewhere when not in use.

Over a 30-year lifecycle, UDOT estimates the costs are about the same for either method.

And there’s a caveat: Since UDOT started studying the options, the cost projections have increased substantially. Since about this time last year, the upfront cost estimate for the bus option has increased by $40 million and the operations costs by $4 million a year, while the upfront cost to build the gondola has shot up $200 million and operations costs by $3 million a year.

So take these estimates for what they’re worth.

Need for speed

When you think of speed, you probably don’t picture a bus. But buses clock in ahead of the gondola in total time from the bottom of the canyon to the top. UDOT estimates it would take a total of 36 minutes for a passenger to get from the mobility hub to Alta — including 12 minutes from their car to their seat.

The process is more complicated for the gondola, where passengers would have to either walk or take a shuttle from the parking lot to the gondola loading site, then would have a 34-minute trip to Alta. All told the trip would take between 55 and 59 minutes.

Advantage, buses.

Weather wildcard

This one seems obvious, but buses work best when the roads are clean and dry, which is not always a guarantee during ski season. They can be delayed by snowy or icy conditions, traffic accidents and potentially avalanches — although the proposal includes building avalanche sheds to keep slides from blocking the roadway.

The gondola, meantime, can run in rain, sleet or snow without much of a hitch. The advantage has to go to the gondola on this one.

Environmental considerations

No matter which way UDOT ends up going, you simply can’t move more people up the canyons without damaging the environment and undermining what makes them special.

Widening the road will mean disrupting habitat and the salt that is spread on the roads to keep them from icing over is a leading pollutant in the watershed. And UDOT is projecting using diesel buses — electric buses would be a lot more expensive — which means a lot of tailpipe pollutants, although that’s offset by the fact that every full bus could mean 21 cars aren’t stuck idling in traffic.

Going with the bus option, UDOT says, would not mean exceeding air quality standards.

The gondola runs cleaner than the buses and less damaging to the water. It would be quieter and have a smaller physical footprint, since it wouldn’t require essentially building a new roadway all the way up.

The downside, of course, is the massive towers needed to suspend the cars — some of them would be taller than the Hotel Monaco downtown. Riding that high means the cars will be visible up and down the canyon and travel right over places like Tanner Flat campground.

So pick your poison, I suppose.

Tolls are still a must

It’s not part of this process, but UDOT is figuring out how to charge visitors who drive up the canyon. What they’re considering is encouraging. They plan to use congestion pricing — meaning the rates are high during peak ski seasons and low, if there is a toll at all, when demand is lower.

They also plan to only charge people accessing the top of the canyon — where the ski resorts are — so everyone else can still access their favorite hiking trails without having to pay, addressing a major concern about depriving low-income residents of recreation opportunities.

So which is best?

In an ideal world, congestion wouldn’t be an issue, we wouldn’t have to build either and we wouldn’t be bending over backward to tear up our canyon and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build something that almost exclusively benefits the ski industry.

That’s not the reality. The congestion and strain traffic puts on our canyons is untenable and will only get worse.

In the end, I think expanding buses makes more sense. It’s less expensive (at least up front) and more flexible — able to ramp up on peak weekends and scaled down during the summer and mid-week.

I’m not crazy about the roadway expansion, but the road is there, and there’s a benefit to more room for cyclists. And I simply can’t get past the visual impairment of building those towers and having gondola cars running up and down the canyon.

Maybe you disagree

This isn’t a clear-cut case. The good news is you can have your own say on the final selection. UDOT has scheduled two public hearings on the plan, the first an in-person meeting at Butler Middle School on July 13, the second a virtual meeting on July 20. Written comments are being accepted until Aug. 9.

More information on the meetings and the two competing proposals is available at https://littlecottonwoodeis.udot.utah.gov.