Would a gondola solve Little Cottonwood’s problems, or make them worse?

The public weighs in on proposals for canyon transit systems.

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

There is no question that a gondola running up the entire length of Little Cottonwood would alter the character of the revered natural area and outdoor destination in Salt Lake City’s backyard. Many would say the addition would be for the better, while detractors see an unsightly half-billion-dollar gift to the ski industry.

Since the birth of Snowbird in the 1970s, aerial transit has been discussed, but never seriously considered for getting people up and down the avalanche-prone — until now. Such a project is a distinct possibility after the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) released a draft environmental impact statements last week identifying a gondola among its preferred alternatives for addressing the growing traffic quagmire in the canyon.

The agency says a gondola would be the most reliable way of transporting people to the two popular ski areas at the top of the canyon; “enhanced” bus service using a new dedicated lane would be the best option for mobility. The public has until Aug. 9 to submit comments to UDOT and open houses are to be held Tuesday (in person at Butler Middle School) and July 20 (online).

The document’s release has renewed the long-running debate over how to manage transportation, not just in Little Cottonwood Canyon, but also in surrounding canyons that have become year-round recreational hot spots that support northern Utah’s outdoor-focused quality of life.

Two recent informal surveys of Tribune readers found greater enthusiasm for the aerial option, but many have serious misgivings.

Between June 29 and July 1, 160 responses came back to a survey posted on the Tribune’s web site, asking readers to identify their preference for canyon transportation and to explain their reasons. About half favored the gondola, while 35% favored enhanced bus service, with the rest favoring the now abandoned cog rail option or other ideas. Hundreds more readers responded to another survey on Instagram, with the gondola garnering nearly twice as many votes than enhanced bus service.

Cody Elletson, a 28-year-old Cottonwood Heights resident, believes the gondola is the “clear-cut choice” for those who hope to see the canyon retain its glory as recreational use increases.

“It is more efficient and solves more issues than buses. Also the construction is limited to a few pieces instead of the entire canyon,” wrote Elletson, who visits the canyon 60 times a year to ski both the resorts and backcountry, hike and bike. “Tearing up the canyon to add bus lanes is a slap in the face to Utahns. We are already way behind in fighting the climate crisis. Any new decision made involving our environment needs to involve this factor to the greatest magnitude.”

Gregg Blanchard, 38, of Eden, noted that aerial transit has been successfully deployed in Park City. The cabriolet serving Canyons Village replaced buses long ago and it has been five times better, Blanchard wrote.

“No waiting for a bus. No getting tossed around with your skis/board when the bus hits a pothole because you’re standing up so you don’t have to wait for another bus. No driver error when they take a corner too fast in a snowstorm and skid sideways. No exhaust piling up in the waiting area,” he wrote. “We already have buses, but folks aren’t using them even with the crazy traffic. If people don’t want to ride the bus, the solution isn’t more buses … A gondola would actually get used because it aligns with the behavior skiers have already shown they will adopt.”

Skier Robert Volker argued the canyon would be better served by buses because of the flexibility such a system would offer.

“The number of buses, origin of bus routes, stops within the canyon, time-of-year demands, and, even with replacing buses as technology evolves,” wrote Volker. “Parking of cars is the actual problem. The base of the gondola would never have enough parking, consequently a bus ride to the gondola base would be required, and if that’s the case why not have the bus continue directly up the canyon.”

The 62-year-old Salt Lake City resident enjoys skiing both resorts and backcountry and visits the canyon 60 times a year.

“I absolutely love [Little Cottonwood Canyon] year around,” he wrote. “[It] has been my outdoor refuge for 50 years. These changes break my heart, and as my outdoor lifestyle degrades I’m now considering living elsewhere.”

According to the environmental impact statement (EIS), a gondola would reduce vehicle traffic by about a third at peak times, while moving about 1,000 people per hour. Some respondents feared it would drive “commercialization blight” at the canyon’s mouth. This is because a gondola would effectively extend the ski industry’s footprint to Wasatch Boulevard, where skier services and accommodations would inevitably be developed in proximity to the base terminal near the La Caille restaurant.

This would pave the way for more traffic through the residential areas at the mouths of both Cottonwood canyons, according to the grassroots group Save Not Pave.

“Don’t be fooled. UDOT wants to build out [Wasatch] boulevard into a high-volume, high-speed arterial for traffic they admit won’t come for another 25 years,” said co-director Aaron Dekeyzer. “We want less asphalt, slower speeds within residential areas and more transportation alternatives.”

Managers of both ski areas strongly support the gondola, saying it would be the most efficient system while imposing the smallest environmental footprint.

Yet environmentalists don’t like the gondola because it may not actually do much for reducing vehicular traffic. They fear it would just mean more people cramming into the canyon.

Regardless of which transit alternative is selected, UDOT also proposes constructing sheds over the highway that would help keep traffic flowing during periods of avalanche activity.

Cost estimates range between $72 or $86 million, depending if the sheds come with berms or a realigned roadway. The sheds, totaling nearly 2,500 feet in length, would be constructed in three slide areas, White Pine Chutes, White Pine and Little Pine.

A $5 million toll-collection system would also be built and parking along the highway would be banned in winter.

Tolling would likely be tiered to encourage carpooling and discourage driving during peak periods, when single-occupancy vehicles could be barred from entering the canyon.

The EIS does not indicate who would operate the gondola or bus system, or what the fares and road tolls would be.

So what exactly would a roped aerial transit system, which would be among the longest in the world, look like?

The gondola base station would by anchored to a 1,500-stall parking structure and a signalized intersection at SR 210. Two satellite “mobility hubs” would be built—at 9400 South and at the gravel pit on Wasatch Boulevard—each with parking structures that would handle a total of 1,000 cars. Express buses would connect these hubs with the terminal.

The 8.6-mile gondola alignment would feature 22 towers and two angle stations, along with loading platforms near Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge and in the town of Alta on the highway near the Rustler Lodge. Total travel time to Alta would be 37 minutes. Riders to Alta would transfer to another gondola car at the Snowbird station for the final 6-minute ride.

The towers and stations would be spaced a third of a mile apart. Seventeen of the towers and about three-fourths of line would sit on national forest land. No passengers would load at the two angle stations, which would be built at the park-and-ride lot at the mouth of the canyon and just west of the Tanner Flat campground. Tower heights would range between 131 and 262 feet.

Each cabin would hold up 35 passengers and load every two minutes.

The gondola’s central selling point is it can run while avalanche activity disrupts ground-based travel. But it’s not that simple, according to the EIS, because there still would be many times when avalanches disrupt gondola operations.

For decades, artillery has been fired in the canyon to dislodge avalanches. The gondola would not operate while artillery is in use and for a short time after assuming shell fragments haven’t damaged the haul rope.

However, UDOT anticipates an 80% reduction in the use of artillery once the concrete sheds and other avalanche-mitigation measures are built. Prior to 2017, artillery rounds were fired, on average, 153 times during ski season, according to the EIS. UDOT expects that number to drop to 31, discharged six days each winter on average. During those periods, the gondola would not operate since its alignment passes through places shell fragments could reach. The system could resume running once the firing stops, but only after the haul rope has been checked.

“The cables would be inspected by cameras and magnetic imaging devices, and the towers would be inspected by video, to ensure that no damage has occurred,” the EIS states. The gondola would run daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but service would be paused during extreme avalanche activity, known as “interlodge” when people at Alta and Snowbird are confined to buildings.

But at the end of the day, would the gondola fix the canyon’s problems? Not if you define the problem as too many cars, according to Sam Taylor, 32, of Sandy. He believes neither option as currently framed by UDOT is worth pursuing unless they are retooled to eliminate cars.

“Listen UDOT, it’s time to stop accommodating the damn automobile. It’s a new world, time to be forward thinking,” wrote Taylor in his response to the Tribune survey. “Get cars out of the canyon and use electric buses on the existing road. Least impacts, least expensive. Put your models aside and use some common sense. We’ve only got one [Little Cottonwood] canyon, please don’t ruin it.”