Alta leaders want traffic, merging issues fixed before building gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon

In a letter sent to UDOT and the Governor’s Office, Alta officials say busy ski days cause gridlock in the town and resort, while Snowbird patrons can leave more quickly.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A long line of cars forms near Little Cottonwood Canyon during the snow storm on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

Local Alta leaders want the Utah Department of Transportation to fix traffic issues first before it implements the controversial gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon, according to a letter addressed to the department.

The head of Alta Ski Area says he still supports building the gondola, but this issue needs to be resolved first.

In a letter dated Monday, numerous Alta leaders and business purveyors outlined how current traffic flow often favors Snowbird’s patrons and employees, while those at Alta typically see longer wait times and gridlock in the canyon. Those who signed onto the letter include Mike Maughan, Alta Ski Area general manager, and Roger Bourke, Alta’s town mayor.

Maughan told The Salt Lake Tribune the letter was sent to UDOT, the Utah Governor’s Office and the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

Getting both in and out of Little Cottonwood Canyon has been difficult this year for skiers and riders, with bus routes in flux and heavy snowfall creating poor road conditions.

The letter, obtained by The Tribune on Wednesday, says the town’s traffic woes on peak days are caused by “the traffic merges, roadside parking at Snowbird and the gridlock caused when the mainline is closed.” The mainline is in reference to the main roadway, SR 210, which runs through the canyon and can often close during things like avalanche mitigation, forcing Alta patrons and residents to take the nearby Bypass Road.

A UDOT spokesperson told The Tribune on Thursday the agency had received the letter and was still in the process of drafting a response.

The letter explains that, regardless of road closures, Snowbird patrons are able to exit the canyon more quickly than Alta patrons with current road control methods. Alta is farther up the canyon than Snowbird.

Maughan said SR 210 has been closed more often this year — mostly due to heavy snowfall and the frequent need for avalanche mitigation — compounding the long-standing problem. Traffic is at a standstill on Bypass Road due to the merge points on the road, he said.

He added that he doesn’t blame Snowbird for the traffic issues, saying Snowbird has no control over SR 210 closing and the neighboring resort recognizes the inequity in merging.

“We’ve looked at UDOT EIS, and even the phased in approach, we don’t see anything in there that will address that issue,” Maughan told The Tribune, saying that’s one reason they submitted the letter to UDOT.

He added the letter doesn’t mean he has turned against the gondola’s construction, as he still thinks the project will ultimately get cars off the road, but the merging issues should be dealt with first, because a gondola would take years to build.

Bourke, the Alta mayor, told The Tribune that seven to 15 cars at Snowbird can leave the resort for every one car that leaves Alta in the current merging conditions. He added, “this problem won’t be solved by the gondola.”

Bourke has been vocal in his opposition to the gondola.

Alta leaders asked in the letter for UDOT to prioritize the traffic flow issue before starting work on the gondola.

“From our perspective, keeping the mainline open during peak exit periods and providing a more equitable merging of Alta traffic on S.R. 210 passing through Snowbird are immediate needs that should be addressed before Gondola Alternative B is implemented,” the letter said. “If not addressed, they will still exist even after a Gondola is put in place.”

UDOT announced in August it decided that building an eight-mile-long gondola through the canyon was the most effective option for solving the canyon’s lingering traffic woes. The polarizing decision has drawn criticism from local and county leaders since, with the Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City leaders condemning the project.

Snowbird has been the leading driver pushing for the gondola and general managers at both Alta and Snowbird, including Maughan, have backed the plan. Snowbird quietly bought two parcels of land where the gondola’s base station would be, and it later spearheaded the Gondola Works group, which advocates for the building of the gondola.

UDOT has yet to issue a finalized report recommending the building of the gondola, which is estimated to cost the state over $500 million. The final report will likely be released in the coming months.