Officials blast Little Cottonwood gondola as ‘boondoggle,’ call on UDOT to start over with canyon plan

Speakers at rally say 8 miles of cable suspended from 200-foot towers has no place in Utah’s premier outdoor destination

(Jacob Scholl | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson voices her opposition to a proposed gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon during an event on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, in Sandy.

As Utah transportation officials wrap up their multiyear study of potential transportation solutions for Little Cottonwood Canyon, two completely different visions have been staked out for the future of Utah’s world-famous ski destination, which is becoming more associated with traffic gridlock than with breathtaking outdoor recreation.

On one side is the ski industry-backed idea of an 8-mile gondola connecting Alta with the canyon mouth, which has drawn flack from elected leaders who see the project, with its 200-foot towers and suspended cables, as an eyesore and a boondoggle.

Pushed by a highly polished publicity campaign, the gondola appears to have the best chance of being selected over expanded bus service and less invasive possibilities.

According to Gondola Works’ videos, produced by Love Communications, the gondola would be the most effective and environmentally friendly and least disruptive option.

“Canyon [road] expansion for more busses would mean concrete over nature, polluted rivers and streams, displacement of wildlife and loss of climbing resources,” says an actor portraying an affable skier in one video. “Gondola Works invites you to rise high above the hazards and hassle of the road and imagine the possibilities of a sustainable future, leaving you free to enjoy the scenic journey ahead.”

This guy has it all backward, according to numerous elected leaders who spoke at a rally Wednesday organized by Save Our Canyons at the canyon’s mouth. The rally attracted around 100 people, many voicing their opposition to the proposed gondola by loudly cheering on speakers denouncing the project. Elected officials are now joining with environmental and recreation groups to denounce the gondola option, calling it an unwarranted subsidy to the ski industry that would irreparably mar the canyon’s exquisite views and potentially make crowding worse.

“Don’t you think the canyon deserves a little more time for us to get it right,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said. “Rather than rip up the canyon with a half-a-billion-dollar price tag, let’s invest in common-sense solutions. Parking hubs in the valley, electric busing with regular routes, carpooling and tolling, reservations, common-sense solutions that are fiscally sound. Gondolas and wider roads are going to be built around the world, but God will not create any more canyons for us.”

She was joined by the mayors of Sandy and Alta, the two cities at either end of the gondola, lawmakers, Salt Lake County Council members, Salt Lake City officials, along with various activists, who want the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) to scrap its draft transportation plan and start over.

“When people learn about the gondola at first, maybe they’re intrigued and think of it as an entertaining novelty. But once they learned that it’s actually the Utah taxpayer who’s picking up the tab to shuttle customers to private resort areas, that gives them pause,” said Sandy’s new mayor, Monica Zoltanski, who campaigned on a pledge to fight the gondola. “Another thing that stops people in their tracks is when they think about massive metal structures, latticework going up, creating a highway in the sky of this beautiful vista.”

Snowbird General Manager Dave Fields, who attended the rally, pushed back, saying doing nothing is not an option.

“That is what’s been happening for the last couple of decades. And we’ve worked with UTA to create more buses and incentivize carpooling,” Fields said in an interview. “But what UDOT is looking at is a transportation solution for this canyon for the next 30 years going out to 2050, and with another million people living along the Wasatch Front, that congestion and demand for recreation in the canyons is only going to intensify.”

UDOT narrowed its alternatives to buses and the gondola last year when it released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which garnered some 14,000 public comments. The agency expects to release its final EIS this summer, with a decision by winter.

“UDOT has narrowed it down to turning Little Cottonwood Canyon into a four-lane highway, or [building] a gondola. The impact on the canyon and the water and air quality is a lot less with a gondola,” Fields said. “It’s proven technology that’s used around the world to move people up and down canyons and through mountain ranges, including the Eiger [in the Swiss Alps] and all kinds of places throughout Europe.”

Many see UDOT’s draft plan as simply offering a phony choice between two equally unpalatable alternatives, both costing more than $500 million. The bus option entails adding a third lane to State Road 210, cutting large retaining walls into the mountain side and building costly avalanche “sheds,” which are far more akin to hardened bunkers, shielding the highway where it crosses the canyon’s many dangerous slide paths.

Wilson said during an interview after the Wednesday rally that she supports alternatives to both the gondola and lane expansion, saying there are alternatives to the two options.

“There’s a real cost to a road expansion and I’m not sure the public understands that we’re talking about the gondola today,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot (of options) without a road expansion or additional lanes.”

Missing from the plan are strategies that would reduce vehicle traffic without masses of concrete or dozens of steel towers, according to Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and other critics. They point to Alta and Snowbird’s new parking reservation systems and proposed tolling as proven ways to reduce traffic at peak times.

Meanwhile, on its Facebook page, Gondola Works alleges opponents’ real aim is to keep people out.

“Those who attack Gondola don’t want you in the canyon. As Utahns we can’t lose our access to some of the greatest recreation in the world!” reads one recent post.

“As Utahns we can’t let you greedy developers distort perspective and turn this into a us vs. them,” one critic posted.

The gondola would move up to 3,400 people an hour, using cars that hold 35 people and cover the distance to Alta in 36 minutes with a single intermediary stop at Snowbird. At the base terminal near the La Caille restaurant would be a 1,500-stall parking structure that would likely include restaurants, skier services and a transit hub tied to Utah Transit Authority bus routes.

A leading gondola supporter is developer and lifelong Little Cottonwood skier Chris McCandless, a former Sandy City Council member who once chaired the Central Wasatch Commission.

“The gondola is a better option,” he said recently on the Utah Real Estate Podcast. “It’s safer, it’s more dependable, it’s reliable, it has the capacity to do less damage to the environment. We can get more people, if we want to get more cars off the road, up the canyon in the gondola by comparison to the bus.”

McCandless has drawn flack in the past for holding a stake in the land where the terminal would be sited, prompting some to allege his support for the gondola was motivated by profit. While dismissing the charge, he said he recently sold the property.

Although the gondola would have to be paused during avalanche control work, it could run in almost any weather condition and at a cost of about $3.6 million a year less than busses, McCandless said. By contrast, buses could not move much more than 1,000 people per hour, less than a third the rate of the gondola.

Critics note that the gondola would serve only those visiting the ski areas, even though many visit the canyon to enjoy dispersed recreation at places away from the resort’s base areas, such as White Pine, Grizzly Gulch, Albion Basin and Lisa Falls.

“You guys just overlooked the clean, green options in order to make the gondola look better,” said Carl Fisher of Save Our Canyons. “To fix transportation in the Wasatch and regionally, there are a lot of things we can do. Before destroying a canyon with towers and wider roads, we have other solutions that are much easier to implement.”

For many elected officials, the gondola proposal is fatally flawed because such a massive structure just doesn’t belong in a glaciated canyon that so many Utahns cherish.

“At the top of this canyon is a jewel in the crown of the Wasatch, a jewel that is easily tarnished, and it’s very difficult to repair,” said Alta Mayor Roger Bourke. “Can you imagine a 20-story building here? … These things are scars. These are not an improvement.”