Gondola or frequent buses are final options under study to improve Little Cottonwood Canyon traffic

Future visitors to Little Cottonwood Canyon may not just enjoy ski lifts at Alta and Snowbird resorts — it’s possible they could travel up the canyon by public gondola to reduce traffic congestion.

Building a gondola is one of three final solutions to canyon congestion — pared down from 105 original proposals — that officials said Thursday will receive more in-depth study during the next phase of an environmental impact statement, scheduled for completion late next year.

The other two options include enhanced Utah Transit Authority bus service, arriving as frequently as every five minutes. One bus option would include widening the canyon road to allow bus-only lanes on shoulders during ski season and use by bicyclists and hikers in summer.

Notably not making the cut for the final three options is building a transit train up the canyon, which had been promoted by such people as gubernatorial candidate Greg Hughes, the former Utah House speaker and former chairman of UTA.

The various remaining proposals would cost an estimated $283 million to $470 million to build. While a rail spur up the canyon, estimated to cost up to $680 million in 2013, would now likely cost well over $1 billion. Officials said that the source of funding for the final project chosen has not yet been identified.

Each of the main alternatives may include some other elements previously proposed, including charging tolls to reduce vehicle traffic; snowsheds over the highway to keep it clear of snow from avalanches; banning roadside parking near resorts; widening and other improvements on Wasatch Boulevard in the Salt Lake Valley; and new hubs for parking and buses in the valley.

The public may view details and submit comments on plans for the final in-depth review online at littlecottonwoodeis.udot.utah.gov.

The Utah Department of Transportation is accepting comments on the proposals from June 8 through July 10. It also has scheduled several public meetings online, and one that is in person for people without internet. A schedule of the meetings also is on the project website.

“Public participation is a vital component of the study and helps support the decision-making process,” said Josh Van Jura, UDOT project manager. “We’re asking canyon users, residents, and the public as a whole to get involved and let us know their feedback.”

Here is a look at the three proposals for more study:

• Gondola. It would run an estimated $393 million in capital costs, or in the middle of the final three options. The gondola itself would stretch from a base station at the mouth of the canyon with stations at Snowbird and Alta.

Thirty gondolas, which could hold 35 people each, would come every two minutes and transport up to 1,050 people per hour — the most of any transit option — and allow about another 2,249 people traveling in cars per hour up the canyon.

Taking the gondola up the canyon, plus a bus from the transportation hub, would take 63 minutes.

But by helping to remove cars from the canyon road, the average estimated travel time for all canyon visitors would be about 46 minutes (the same as enhanced bus option without bus-only lanes).

Van Jura said not building any of the transit options would result in average ski season travel times of 80 to 85 minutes by 2050. “So to get that down to a 46 minute average is really a significant accomplishment and will provide great benefit to people looking to go up on those busy ski days."

No parking would be permitted at the gondola base station.

As for all three options, buses would be provided from a mobility hub in the valley on Wasatch Boulevard near Fort Union Boulevard. That hub would have parking for 1,500 to 2,000 vehicles. Wasatch Boulevard would be widened and would give signal priority to buses.

Annual winter operation costs are estimated at $4.6 million, the cheapest of the three alternatives. Van Jura said UDOT would like public comments on whether the agency should evaluate if a gondola should also operate during summer months for recreational opportunities.

Also as with all options, this one may include tolling or requiring car pooling to reduce vehicle traffic. Van Jura said no decisions have been made whether or where to toll, how much to charge or whether and where to ban single occupant vehicles.

All options also would ban roadway parking near resorts and will address parking at trailheads throughout the canyon.

Unlike the bus options, this gondola would not include building snowsheds on the canyon road to protect against avalanches.

• Enhanced bus. This is the cheapest option, running an estimated $283 million in capital costs. The travel time up the canyon for bus users would be about 54 minutes, but create an average travel time for all visitors (including those in cars) of 46 minutes.

It would have 12 buses per hour from the mobility hub on Wasatch Boulevard near Fort Union Boulevard, and 12 more for another hub at 9400 S. Highland Drive. “So another bus would show up every five minutes,” Van Jura said. “It would be direct service.... For example, a bus for Alta would not stop at Snowbird."

The option could carry 1,008 people via bus per hour and allow another 2,249 by personal car up the canyon. Its estimated annual winter operation costs of $9 million is the most expensive of any option.

The bus options would include construction of snowsheds over key sections of the canyon road to protect from avalanches, and tolling or requirements for car pooling to reduce vehicle traffic.

• Enhanced bus in a dedicated shoulder lane. This option would add bus-only lanes from North Little Cottonwood Canyon Road to Alta Bypass Road. Buses would use it during peak periods in ski season; bicyclists and pedestrians would use it during the summer, offering them more safety.

It is the most expensive option, with capital costs of $470 million. But it would have the quickest bus trip up the canyon, about 36 minutes. Also, the average time for all trips — including cars — would be 37 minutes in this option.

It would offer the same number of buses and frequency as the other enhanced bus option.

Its annual winter operation costs are estimated at $6.2 million a year, in the middle of the three options.

The Little Cottonwood Canyon environmental impact statement was initiated in 2018 by UDOT in partnership with UTA and the U.S. Forest Service. It began with 105 preliminary concepts proposed during scoping meetings and in earlier studies.

They were evaluated on ability to improve canyon transportation, feasibility and environmental impacts, and were pared down to the final three draft alternatives.

After public review of the alternatives, more study will lead eventually to selection of a preferred alternative in a draft EIS next spring, followed by a final EIS and record of decision in late 2021.

One environmental group expressed concern that the study has been too narrow.

“These alternatives certainly seem focused on wintertime challenges in the canyons and might be overlooking some of the other challenges we have,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, adding that a gondola and buses that stop only at ski resorts may limit opportunities elsewhere.

“Should we be focused on just the skiing aspects of the canyons?" he asked. "Or … be focused on enhancing the watershed in the face of climate change?”