The gondola’s price tag just went up again. Here’s why UDOT still says it is moving forward with the controversial plan.

The gondola, which could cost the state over $700 million to build, would stretch over eight miles through the canyon to try and help ease its traffic woes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The proposed gondola stop at Snowbird is planned adjacent to the Cliff Lodge along E. Bypass Road, below right, pictured in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

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The Utah Department of Transportation has made it official — it wants to build an eight-mile-long gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon.

UDOT’s final record of decision, made public Wednesday, means the department can officially move forward with the gondola plan, a decision years in the making. Building the gondola would likely take years, if not decades, to complete.

The agency released a preliminary plan last August identifying the gondola as the best solution to fix the canyon’s longstanding traffic issues, as winter sports enthusiasts regularly see long lines to enter the Alta and Snowbird resorts, along with the canyon’s backcountry. Congestion can often spill into the summer months, too, as popular trailheads see lines of cars parked along the shoulders of the canyon’s road.

The decision in August prompted thousands of public comments, which UDOT reviewed before releasing the finalized decision Wednesday.

According to UDOT records, the agency is taking a phased approach to the canyon’s transportation. As early as this summer, the department will get the ball rolling on buying more buses, designing mobility hubs and make plans for tolling in the canyon. The latest tolling estimates could be around $20 to $30, with the hopes of reducing traffic and encouraging carpooling.

UDOT wants these updates done by the fall of 2025.

As of now, phase one is the only phase of the project with funding. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed SB2, which set aside $150 million for “enhanced bus service, tolling, a mobility hub, and resort bus stops for Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons,” according to the language of the bill.

The second phase includes widening Wasatch Boulevard, building snow sheds in the canyon and making improvements to trailhead parking.

The third and final phase includes not only building the gondola but also constructing a base station near the canyon’s mouth with 2,500 parking stalls. In 2021, Snowbird quietly bought the land that could become the base station in the hopes of keeping the gondola as a viable option for UDOT.

(Utah Department of Transportation) A rendering of a snowshed from Tanners Flat Campground in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Each gondola car would hold 35 people, a UDOT news release says, and cabins would arrive every two minutes.

However, the news release also notes that when phase three is complete and the gondola is operational, “bus service in Little Cottonwood Canyon would be discontinued.”

Josh Van Jura, the UDOT project manager over the Little Cottonwood EIS, told The Salt Lake Tribune while there will be an increased cost, “improving and increasing bus service combined with tolling and a mobility hub at the Gravel Pit will alleviate mobility, reliability and safety concerns that exist today while addressing, with a gondola, the long-term transportation needs in the canyon.”

He added, “the investment in the buses will be a long-term solution for other transportation needs, as bus service would cease in Little Cottonwood Canyon when the gondola becomes operational and the buses can be moved to Big Cottonwood Canyon or used elsewhere once the gondola is in operation.”

Included in the new record of decision is an updated cost estimate adjusted for inflation. Van Jura said the price tag has gone up significantly.

“The final ‘Gondola B’ implementation for just the ‘Gondola B’ is approximately $728 million [to build the gondola] with $4.4 million per year in operations,” Van Jura said in an interview Wednesday morning. He added there were over 50,000 comments submitted, saying, “I’ve actually read every single one of them.”

Van Jura said one of the notable outcomes of the public comments was UDOT implementing changes in phases, starting with expanded bus services. Public comments also resulted in UDOT doing additional analysis on environmental impact, which he said has been updated under the new record of decision.

“I’m fully confident that we have both a more complete and accurate final EIS and record of decision,” he said, “because of the fact that so many people took time out of their lives to review the materials and provide those comments.”

Van Jura added that the record of decision didn’t change existing construction plans, saying previous proposals are still what’s on the table. That means the approved plans include a potential gondola tower on land owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where the Granite Mountain Records Vault is located.

Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, an environmental advocacy group, told The Tribune he is glad to see UDOT implementing the changes outlined in phase one, which he described as the “common sense approach.”

But to say he is disheartened in UDOT opting for the second and third phases is putting it mildly.

“I think disappointing is probably the nicest phrase I can use,” Fisher said. “To us, it really affirms that this isn’t about finding problems in the canyon or in the Wasatch, it’s about helping two resorts. Buses could stop at crags and trailheads without replacing them with concrete and steel towers.”

He believes UDOT hasn’t looked comprehensively at the issue, saying the only way to solve the canyon’s transportation and congestion problems is by getting cars off the road.

“Building avalanche sheds suggests that they are investing in vehicles on the roadway, and I think the trailhead improvements — it’s going to be expanding parking lots,” Fisher said. “We’re trying to protect the natural infrastructure in the canyons, not reduce them to concrete and asphalt, which is what UDOT’s proposal is all about.”

Though it released much of the public comments from the environmental impact study, UDOT doesn’t have an exact tally on its websites regarding how many comments were for or against the gondola. A November report from KUTV estimated that of 35,000 comments available at that time, the majority, about 61% of comments, were against the gondola.

It will likely take years for work on the gondola to begin, let alone complete. The Wasatch Front Regional Council voted in May to adopt the gondola into its long-term plans, estimating it might not be complete until between 2043-2050.

With the gondola’s official approval, the project will likely be eligible for funding during the 2024 Legislative Session. Its completion will highly depend on whether state lawmakers allocate the funds needed to complete the project.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox — who has voiced his support for building the gondola — told The Tribune last December the gondola could not receive state funding without the record of decision.