Gondola would be corporate welfare for Little Cottonwood resorts, Robert Gehrke writes

A final decision could come before the end of the year. Then we need to make sure taxpayers aren’t the ones stuck with the bill.

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

Within the next few weeks the Utah Department of Transportation will make its final recommendation on how to best move millions of people a year to the Little Cottonwood Canyons ski resorts. Will it be expanded bus service or will it be a fancy new gondola suspended overhead?

Either option is incredibly expensive, approaching $600 million no matter how you slice it, effectively asking Joe and Jill Lunchbox to pony up millions so Klaus and Karla Von Powderhound can get to the resorts without being inconvenienced.

Make no mistake: Building a gondola would be corporate welfare for these resorts (who, in fairness, have made vague promises to pay some of the cost of the gondola). What business in Utah wouldn’t want a dedicated mode of travel, built with help from taxpayers, taking customers directly to their front door and literally nowhere else?

That’s right. If you want to take the gondola up to, say, the White Pine Trailhead, don’t bother. Maybe you can get a look at it as you pass overhead. And if you’re out trying to enjoy the scenery on the trail, you can look up and see those people peering down.

It’s a real mess that ignores the fact that most of the people who use the canyon for the vast majority of the year are not skiing in the first place. As proposed now, even bikes would not be allowed on the gondola in the summer months.

I’m not unaware of the problems that ski traffic creates several weekends a year. The line of cars waiting to get up the canyon is a headache for everyone and should be addressed.

But we haven’t just failed to exhaust other options, we haven’t exhausted any options.

Charging cars headed up Little Cottonwood Canyon has been discussed as a concept but hasn’t been implemented. Creating an app that reserves a time to head up and prioritizes cars full of passengers is yet another.

Instead of asking the question of how many visitors the canyon can reasonably accommodate, the state is focusing all of its efforts into jamming as many as physically possible into the playground.

At a minimum, those cheaper, less-permanent measures should be implemented before we even have to answer the prickly and pricey “buses or gondola” question.

But since we’re here, let’s look at why — at least the way UDOT has presented the issue — it is such a close call.

Back in June, I took a deep dive on the pros and cons of the two options. Basically, the gondola costs about $82 million more to build, about $592 million instead of $510 million (although both estimates are probably much higher now than when they were first made).

The bus would move passengers a little faster, while the gondola is less likely to be disrupted by weather or avalanche. From an environmental standpoint, it has a smaller physical footprint, but the towers looming over the forest are obviously going to disrupt the views.

The idea of having one reversible lane — buses going up in the morning when skiers are trying to get to the resorts and down in that afternoon and evening — always made sense to me. Less cost and flexible transit is a win-win.

UDOT identified problems with that idea: It would still require shoulder widening, signs would be needed to indicate traffic direction, dividers would be required to separate the bus lane from general traffic, plowing would become a challenge and there would be no emergency pullout.

Credit to UDOT for identifying those obstacles which may be insurmountable.

But the agency also limited one of the advantages of buses by ruling out other bus stops anywhere else in the canyon. Extra stops would serve more people, add year-round value to the line and allow service to be ramped-up or ramped-down based on demand.

If you could slash the cost by going to one lane (which, again, may be impossible), dramatically increase the year-round flexibility, this close call is less close. The increased bus service becomes much more attractive.

But it always seemed odd that UDOT’s plan is to build two new peak-period shoulder lanes, one in each direction, for most of the canyon except at snowsheds. At the snowsheds — think tunnels that keep snow and avalanches off the road — there will be one bus lane, likely creating bottlenecks.

And if we build a bus lane and 10 or 15 years we still need more capacity — assuming there is still a ski season 15 years from now, given our warming climate — a gondola remains an option.

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protestors hold up "No Gondola" signs at a protest at the Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride on Saturday, September 25, 2021.

Will any of this sway the decision-makers? Probably not.

Neither will, I suspect, the objections voiced by Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City, or the opposition from residents who live at the mouth of the canyon, including the newly elected mayors in both Cottonwood Heights and Sandy City.

They’ll get about as much traction as a puppy dog on an ice rink.

That’s because legislative leaders, like Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, and former senators like now-Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Dan Hemmert, who now leads the governor’s budget office, have written letters to UDOT backing the gondola.

And of course the people who see millions of dollar signs — especially real estate developers and the big ski resorts — are putting on a full-court press for the project, and they will likely get their way.

They usually do.

Assuming UDOT sides with the gondola in the coming weeks, as I suspect they will, Utahns need to demand that the resorts pick up the lion’s share of the cost of this project. Otherwise, it will be Utah taxpayers who will be taken for a gondola ride.

Correction • Nov. 30, 1:15 p.m.: This story has been updated to remove a reference suggesting former Senate President Wayne Niederhauser was actively promoting the gondola proposal. Niederhauser’s business, CW Management, is backing the gondola, but Niederhauser says he is not participating in the day-to-day operations of the real estate company.