Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson speaks out: She’s against a Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola

She prefers expanded bus service and questions “whether we need a public investment to support” Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, June 25, 2021. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson favors buses to a gondola to shuttle skiers and other recreationists up the canyon.

As officials solicit feedback for transportation alternatives for the endlessly gridlocked Little Cottonwood Canyon, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson is lining up against the notion of a gondola.

The Utah Department of Transportation floated the gondola idea in a draft environmental impact statement last month. The other option UDOT identified was widening State Route 210 and adding enhanced bus service.

In a meeting Tuesday with The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board, Wilson said she prefers more buses.

“I don’t think the gondola is flexible enough,” Wilson said, “and I worry that we’re going to have to create a [separate] bus system to support it.”

The mayor noted that UDOT’s vision includes parking for 1,500 vehicles at the gondola base.

“We’re going to have to bus people to that,” Wilson said. “And I think about me, as a mom, when I took my kids up to Alta, I’m not going to ski Alta if I have to move my kids’ stuff three different times, and that’s what the gondola is going to bring us.”

Given the lure of the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts, which draw more visitors each year, UDOT projects that travel times through the canyon will take up to 85 minutes at peak periods if nothing changes.

(Screen capture via Salt Lake County) Mayor Jenny Wilson delivers the 2021 State of Salt Lake County address in a video shared Thursday, Feb. 25. Wilson is voicing opposition to running a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Improving bus service could cut the journey down to 45 minutes, but widening the road and adding enhanced bus service would drop travel times to 37 minutes.

UDOT estimates widening the road and adding more buses will cost the state $510 million.

The gondola option would cost more to build, about $592 million, but less to operate over time than buses. It would launch from a base at the La Caille restaurant near the mouth of the canyon.

Wilson added that she’s “not doing backflips” over the idea of road expansion and that her personal preference is to just add more buses.

“I question whether we need a public investment to support two ski resorts,” Wilson said. “... Might we be better off to just work with the Forest Service to put in some limits and accept that there’s 10 days a year when the snow is really coming down, the risk is too high and we just close the resorts? That, to me, is a better alternative.

Save Our Canyons Executive Director Carl Fisher previously expressed support for the idea of improved bus service in the canyon and balked at UDOT’s focus on ski resort access.

“We’re bending the management of our forests and our watersheds to transportation,” Fisher said when the draft EIS was revealed, “rather than trying to make transportation systems fit within the priority of protecting our watersheds.”

Representatives with the ski resorts, meanwhile, spoke in favor of the gondola option, which would have fewer delays in the event of slides and slick road conditions.

“A bus you have to ride,” Snowbird General Manager Dave Fields previously said. “A gondola you get to ride.”

UDOT was poised to host an in-person open house on the draft EIS Tuesday from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Butler Middle School in Cottonwood Heights.

A virtual public hearing is also scheduled July 20 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Those wishing to comment must register in advance.