facebook-pixel

Here’s how people reacted to news of the Little Cottonwood gondola moving forward

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said the gondola could take decades to complete, and Wednesday’s decision is not set in stone.

Despite being one of the most vocal opponents of a proposal to build a gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Wednesday that a final decision to allow the transportation system was not cause for “doom and gloom.”

Wilson said the phased approach backed by the Utah Department of Transportation offered room for the region to pursue “commonsense solutions” before any construction can begin.

“The gondola is, at minimum, as listed, 25 years away,” Wilson told reporters in her office Wednesday. “We have 25 years, people — those of us who care deeply about the canyon — to prove that busing will work.”

Wilson joined a chorus of other local leaders who reacted to UDOT’s long-anticipated decision.

[Related: UDOT will move forward on a gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon]

The mayor said a billion-dollar gondola would harm Salt Lake County, and place an unfair tax burden on Utahns who may never use the canyon.

“To me, investment in the canyon needs to be appropriate,” Wilson said. “We need to make sure that our environment is not impacted and that, really, we’re being wise in the use of our taxpayers’ dollars.”

Though it released much of the public comments from the environmental impact study, UDOT doesn’t have an exact tally on their 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.

Wilson acknowledged the county doesn’t have the tools to block gondola funding because those appropriations are made at the state level. She lauded the Legislature, however, for making investments in traffic control measures such as busing, a transit hub and tolling — efforts she said can be successful.

“Again,” she said, “the public’s got to be willing to use a bus.”

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

Wilson said the county will work with UDOT and others to ensure the canyon is served by modernized, efficient, electric buses that conduct regular pickups.

The mayor stopped short of calling the environmental review process unfair but said she would have liked to have seen an agency other than UDOT take the lead on the analysis. Voices at the local level, she said, were left out.

“I would have preferred that we work through an entity where those of us who have standing, have interest in this, have equal parity in the process,” she said. “That would have been Salt Lake County; it would have been the Forest Service.”

Wilson sees a need for the process to “correct itself” when the majority of people who speak out are on one side of a project. The proposal received major blowback from the public.

Asked whether the county would be open to joining a lawsuit to stop the project, Wilson pivoted, saying she wants to focus on solutions. The mayor has embraced the idea of tolling and said there should be better real-time monitoring of the status of the canyon.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also issued a statement opposing the gondola. “I’m still deeply concerned about the significant risk the gondola poses with its construction, operations and its potential to induce visitation and development,” the statement said. “We hold hope that through the phased implementation of other traffic congestion interventions, UDOT might be able to achieve the same goal through less impactful measures.”

Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, also believes in focusing on the solutions in UDOT’s first phase for addressing the canyon’s issues like expanding bus services and implementing tolls.

“But we are really disappointed by phases two and three,” Fisher told The Tribune, referring to UDOT’s plan to widen Wasatch Boulevard and build snow sheds in phase two — along with building the gondola as part of phase three.

Fisher has long been an opponent of the gondola, saying the potential construction of the gondola through Little Cottonwood would “undoubtedly destroy the canyon.”

“People are trying to gain access to recreate,” Fisher said. “And the state is ignoring dispersed recreation and investing in industrialized recreation at the expense of a watershed, and the expense of our public lands.”

Dave Fields, Snowbird’s general manager who is a gondola supporter, also praised UDOT’s phased approach that starts with buses.

“I think they came up with a very thoughtful solution for the myriad challenges faced by those of us who recreate and work and operate businesses in the canyon,” Fields told The Tribune.

Fields added that Snowbird plans to continue its plan to pay for season pass holders to ride buses, as well as ramp up their own bus services for employees to get up and down the canyon. Snowbird does not plan on making changes to its current parking system, Fields added.

He was less enthusiastic about the prospect of tolling in the canyon, but either way he said, he was happy with UDOT’s approach and the ultimate result of moving forward with the gondola.

Roger Bourke, the mayor of Alta, also had questions about tolling in the canyon, though his focus was on the residents of the small, alpine town trying to get in and out.

“Not all travelers are just coming to ski for the day,” Bourke said. “And those who aren’t, whose livelihood depends on getting up and down this canyon, that’s going to be an issue.”

Bourke said the Wednesday decision from UDOT isn’t surprising, saying, “it was clear from a long time ago that this was the direction they were moving, and there was not much to stop them.”

Though he maintained his position against the proposed gondola, Bourke said the prospect of building snow sheds could be a good thing, depending on where the sheds would go. Keeping the road open during avalanche conditions would keep traffic flowing, he said, which has been a concern for Alta skiers and residents in the previous months.

Like Wilson, Bourke said the Wednesday decision doesn’t mean the debates over a gondola are over, adding it’s going to take time to evaluate what is working and what isn’t when it comes to alleviating canyon traffic.

“This is not the end of the story,” Bourke said. “This is too big a deal for this story to end right here, and it will go on for some time.”