Park City Mountain gondola approved after resort makes $1.5M payment for ski bus service

High Valley Transit and the resort have been operating without a contract since 2021.

(Park City Mountain and the Canyons Village Management Association) A drawing submitted to the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission shows the line the proposed Sunrise Gondola would take through the resort from Canyons Village to the Red Pine Lodge. The commission voted 7-0 to recommend approval of the project. The gondola is expected to be operational by December 2025.

Park City Mountain and owner Vail Resorts celebrated a win earlier this month when the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission unanimously recommended approving permits for the resort to build its Sunrise Gondola.

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The second gondola anchored at Canyons Village, the Sunrise Gondola would provide additional, more-wind-protected access to and from the Red Pine Lodge and to mid-mountain terrain. Though all Park City Mountain pass holders will have access to the $27-million lift, which features 10-person cabs, it is expected to mostly be used by visitors and residents based at the Pendry Residences Park City, the Lift Hotel and the Hyatt Centric.

But the vote to recommend the project for approval by Community Development Director Pat Putt came a month after it originally landed on the commission’s agenda.

Less than an hour before the commission’s Dec. 12 meeting, Park City Mountain requested the review of its application be postponed until Jan. 9. The request came after Summit County officials raised concerns that the resort had not been making payments to High Valley Transit (HVT).

The county established HVT in 2021 as a fare-free transit system meant to serve the greater Park City area. Skiers and snowboarders use it to travel between Kimball Junction and the Canyons and to access the resort from the ski area’s overflow parking at Park City High. Sales taxes and grants fund most of HVT’s operations, which were budgeted at $40.5 million last year.

However, Vail Resorts and the Canyons Village Management Association — which oversees the development of the Canyons base area — are also supposed to be contributing to HVT’s bottom line. As part of the Canyons Specially Planned Area (SPA) development agreement, which was drafted in the early 2000s, Park City Mountain and the CVMA are required to contract with a transit company to reduce traffic from single-occupant cars to and from the resort. Noncompliance with that agreement would result in all permit requests being put on hold until the issue is resolved.

Therefore, if the Snyderville Basin commission had found Vail Resorts had been invoiced but wasn’t making payments to HVT, it would either have had to recommend against approval of the gondola application or make the recommendation with a qualifier. For example, the commission could have required Park City Mountain to pay all money owed to the transit operator — in this case, HVT — before it would recommend the issuance of permits.

According to Chris Robinson, one of three Summit County council members who sits on the HVT board, Vail Resorts for two years — until shortly after the Snyderville Basin planning commission meeting in December — had made no payments for HVT’s service. Then again, it had not received an invoice for bus service provided from 2021-23, either.

Because the crux of the problem is that no one knows how much is owed.

The contract Park City Mountain and the CVMA had with Park City Transit expired in 2019, Robinson said, though the resort paid for services in 2020 based on, he believes, the terms from that contract. When HVT took over bus service to the resort in 2021, no one hammered out the details of the new arrangement. For three years, the formula for calculating the cost of the service — which likely will take into account ridership, distance between routes and cost of vehicles — has been unresolved. Robinson attributed that lapse to a combination of the pandemic, the departure of Summit County Manager Tom Fisher in 2022 and complications associated with starting up the new transit district.

As a result, for two years HVT never issued an invoice to Park City Mountain nor the CVMA. And, neither ever made a payment.

“It’s sort of like, ‘Oh, we’ll do that down the road.’ It’s always a conversation that somebody else is looking at it,” Canice Harte, an HVT board member, said in December. “But now a couple of years have gone by and it has to get resolved.

“Otherwise, you may have [Park City Mountain] in noncompliance on an agreement, and nobody wants that.”

Robinson clarified that the county considered neither the resort parties — Vail Resorts and Park City Mountain — nor the CVMA to be behind in their payments.

“At no point has the county declared the resort parties to be in default,” he said, “and every invoice that has been given they promptly pay.”

That includes an invoice for $1.5 million HVT issued within days of the commission’s December meeting. Vail Resorts and the CVMA immediately paid that bill, effectively bringing the resort into compliance with its development agreement.

Robinson said his understanding is that the $1.5 million sum is just a “down payment” for HVT’s service to the resort in 2021 and 2022 given that the parties have not yet agreed on a formula for calculating the total bill. He said HVT has not yet shut its books on 2023.

“It was just kind of an estimate that the parties could agree to in the interim,” he said. “The number is still in flux.”

Harte said that while HVT is fiscally sound, the absence of that money “does significantly impact the budget.” This year, the HVT has plans to build a new bus barn, maintenance building and administrative office at the Ecker Hill Park and Ride off Interstate 80, currently the site of its transit-center tent.

“It’s a young, newer organization,” Harte said, “and being compensated for its services is vitally important.”

This is not the first hiccup Park City Mountain has experienced in its attempts to upgrade its lifts. Just last month, a district judge ruled the Park City Planning Commission has a right to question whether the resort accurately determined its Comfortable Carrying Capacity and the parking it would need to accommodate the users of two lifts that it sought to update last year. That ruling will make the improvement of those lifts on the Mountain Village side considerably more challenging.

The HVT has maintained it has a “long-standing positive relationship” with the resort and the CVMA.

A statement sent to The Tribune by HVT said those parties “have been working together continuously and in good faith to reach a new transit agreement to replace the old contract that expired. Meanwhile, the CVMA and Park City Mountain have paid all invoice [sic] issued by HVT.”

Deirdra Walsh, COO and president of Park City Mountain, said during the resort’s presentation to the commission earlier this month that she expects “a new agreement will be signed by all parties, fingers crossed, by the end of February.”

With the fees paid, and with the project receiving resounding support in letters written to the commission and during the public comment period of the development commission’s meeting, the commission voted 7-0 to give the gondola the green light.

Shaydar Edelmann, Vail Resorts’ senior director of mountain operations, told the commission that he expects the gondola to be in operation by December 2025.

Editor’s note, Jan. 25, 11:00 am • This story was updated to clarify that Park City Mountain and the Canyons Village Management Association are both responsible for payments to High Valley Transit.