Both Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City criticize UDOT’s Little Cottonwood plan

Utah nearing a decision on whether to go with either busses or aerial transit to address canyon congestion

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson addresses reporters Wednesday at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, announcing the county's opposition to a gondola state transportation officials are considering for the famous canyon.

Of all the proposals for fixing Little Cottonwood Canyon’s traffic gridlock, an 8-mile gondola has garnered the most attention and buzz.

Now as the Utah Department of Transportation narrows on a final decision, the gondola proposal is also attracting the most criticism and pushback, most notably from elected leaders from the communities with the most at stake.

“In a way, it’s kind of cool, I guess [but] I think it’s absolutely wrong for this gorgeous canyon. If you like to ride gondolas, it could be kind of fun,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Wilson at a press event Wednesday at the mouth of the canyon. But a gondola would carry visitors only to the canyon’s two ski areas, while costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, she argued, insisting UDOT “go back to the drawing board” and redo its transportation plan.

Wilson and County Council Member Jim Bradley hosted Wednesday’s presser — against the backdrop of the canyon soaring walls as a band of mountain goats lingered far above — to announce the county’s formal position on UDOT’s two designated options for relieving congestion in the world-famous ski destination at Salt Lake City’s doorstep.

That plan proposes either a gondola or widening the canyon road to accommodate speedy enhanced bus service. Strung from towers as high as the Utah Capitol, the gondola would run from a terminal and parking structure to be built near the canyon mouth to Alta, with a stop at Snowbird.

Instead of pursuing a massive construction project in the canyon, the county leaders would rather see a less-costly phased approach toward enhanced bus service. Their vision relies as much as possible on existing infrastructure and a network of transit hubs away from the Cottonwood canyons, along with tolling and other strategies to encourage carpooling and transit.

“The gondola is a permanent fixture. It’s a very expensive fixture and you cannot repurpose it if you decide, well, that was a mistake,” Bradley said. “You’re living with it. It’s there. You’re not going to take it down.”

UDOT recently released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) of its transportation plan and is accepting public comment through Friday. At least 8,000 comments have come in. Agency officials complimented Wilson and other mayors, whose official comments criticized the transportation plan, for taking the time to review the draft EIS.

“They understand the issues that the canyon faces. They have done a fantastic job. I really appreciate them for reviewing the draft and provide comments because that’s how we end up with the best document,” said project manager Josh Van Jura. “That’s the point of the draft, to get public input, see what we might have missed, what we need to revise. We will narrow it down to a single preferred alternative and announce that when we release a record of decision.”

For her part, Wilson praised UDOT’s efort, but noted the agency might not be the best equipped to address for the canyon’s myriad environmental and social concerns, which go far beyond moving people in and out.

“The Department of Transportation has a job to do, but they’re road people. We have a broader need in this canyon to take in other matters to address impacts,” said Wilson, who grew up skiing Alta and Snowbird and later took her own kids skiing at the legendary resorts. “I don’t like either choice. And frankly, I think what we’ve done is chase the wrong things for years. … It is fiscally irresponsible to spend a billion dollars unless you’ve tried a less expensive, more manageable solution first — let alone the impact on the canyon.”

Bradley insists the transportation plan must consider the canyon’s carrying capacity, or how many people can use the canyon at any one time. Utah State University is now conducting such a study, but its findings are about a year out.

“What is very important is the flexibility either choice offers us in terms of meeting all the demands of this canyon,” he said. “Those demands include ecological demands such as air quality, water quality, but also the visitor experience. When does this canyon become so overloaded we lose the visitor experience and the canyon itself becomes degraded because of overuse?”

Meanwhile, Salt Lake City officials said the large-scale development associated with the plan would lead to unacceptable impacts to the watershed that supplies much of the county with culinary water. Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s comments proposed solutions that were almost identical to Wilson’s.

“This would provide an opportunity to study how these changes affect visitation patterns, natural resource impacts and canyon capacity, including whether these strategies would exacerbate or alleviate transportation and natural resource issues in Big Cottonwood Canyon at the same time,” Mendenhall wrote in the city’s comments.

Mendenhall, Wilson and Alta Mayor Harris Sondak all expressed dismay with the astronomical costs associated with UDOT’s plan, either road widening and aerial transit. Sondak calculated the $600 million cost of building and operating the gondola for 25 years would amount to $111 per rider, based on UDOT’s goal of reducing traffic by 30% during ski season.

“Furthermore, the great majority of the costs are paid upfront while the return is realized only over many years so the real cost will be higher in terms of present dollars,” wrote Sondak, a University of Utah professor of management, in an Aug. 30 letter to UDOT.

He also said UDOT’s traffic-reduction goal is way too modest.

“Removing many more cars throughout the year should be the target of this effort, on the assumptions that the population of Salt Lake Valley will continue to grow quickly and that there continues to be increasing demand in both summer and winter for travel in Little Cottonwood Canyon,” he wrote. The Alta mayor noted that canyon visitation is skyrocketing outside the ski areas. In summer, parked cars can stretch along the highway near popular trailheads, especially White Pine. A gondola would not serve these visitors, while summer bus service could.

In the meantime, Sondak wants to see an ironclad commitment from the state that no Olympic events would be staged in Little Cottonwood should Utah win its bid to host the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games.

Alta and Snowbird are not candidates for hosting alpine ski racing, but Sondak is concerned that they could be if climate change renders Snowbasin unsuitable. The Weber County resort hosted the Olympic downhill and Super G races in 2002. These marquee events require top-to-bottom snow cover which Snowbasin may not be able to provide given its low base elevation and Utah’s warming climate, Sondak said.

Little Cottonwood with its abundant snowfall and high elevation would be a logical alternative in such a scenario and Sondak is worried a gondola would make Snowbird an even more enticing option for Olympic organizers. Both Sondak and Wilson want to proactively head off that possibility.

I oppose any Olympic events up the canyon,” said Wilson, who serves on Utah’s Olympic bid committee. “I do think it’s good to ask UDOT to put it in, as Mayor Sondak suggests, as a line in the sand. We should not hold Olympic events up this canyon.”