New train and gondola will be studied as solutions to Little Cottonwood Canyon congestion

(Suzanne Paylor | Tribune file photo) Motorists line up in congested traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon during a storm on Nov. 29, 2019. Officials will study new options of a cog rail and gondola up the canyon as possible solutions to congestion there.

Because of public feedback, two additional alternatives will now be studied as possible solutions to traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon: a new cog rail line plus a longer version of a proposed gondola that would begin in the valley below the mouth of the canyon.

The cog rail — a diesel-powered train with a cogwheel on the track beneath it to provide traction on steep slopes — would cost an estimated $1.05 billion. The new version of the gondola would cost $576 million.

Those will join three other options previously announced for more in-depth study.

They include a shorter gondola beginning at the mouth of the canyon, now estimated to cost $546 million; an enhanced Utah Transit Authority bus system that would run as frequently as every five minutes, costing $334 million; and an enhanced bus system that would include widening highway shoulders to act as bus-only lanes in peak season, $481 million.

Utah Department of Transportation project manager Josh Van Jura said Friday that the two new options were suggested by the public as UDOT sought feedback.

Actually, the public made 19 new or refined proposals, but the cog rail and longer gondola were the only ones found to be feasible after a preliminary review of their traffic benefits and ability to preserve the canyon environment.

“Public comment is so essential to everything we do, because we develop better solutions when we work together,” Van Jura said. He added that with receiving 6,500 comments on canyon proposals, “This level of participation is terrific to see. It proves just how important these canyons are to our quality of life.”

The new cog train and gondola options would begin about three-quarters of mile west of the mouth of the canyon near La Caille restaurant. Both would include a proposed 1,500-stall parking garage there, although officials say additional parking would be needed at other sites to handle expected crowds — with a shuttle service provided.

Van Jura said UDOT currently does not own that land near La Caille and would need to purchase it if either option is chosen.

All five options, including the two new ones, would transport people directly to the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts, without other stops in the canyon.

They also are envisioned mostly for winter use — when congestion is worst. “However, we recognize that the rail and the gondola bring up a tourism component. So, summer service will be analyzed,” Van Jura said.

“Any of these transit modes are only designed to accommodate 30% of these peak users, meaning 70% of the people will still be utilizing the roadway,” he added.

Most canyon traffic at peak times is headed to Alta and Snowbird, Van Jura said. “So, if we can get a good chunk of those people to switch transit modes, then the road will actually be stable. So, all those backcountry skiers, hikers, sledders, they’re going to have an easier time getting to those multiple destinations.”

The newly proposed cog train is envisioned to leave every 15 minutes and hold about 250 people, serving about 1,000 people an hour. Annual operation and maintenance costs are estimated at $6.3 million.

The new gondola proposal, like the previous version, would have 35-passenger gondolas leaving every two minutes, and transport up to 1,050 people an hour. Its annual operation costs are estimated at $6.9 million.

Estimated annual operation costs of the other options are now $8.3 million for either the shorter gondola or enhanced bus with bus lanes, and $10.3 million for enhanced bus without special lanes.

All options will now be studied in-depth for a draft environmental impact statement that is expected to be completed next summer, which will identify a preferred alternative. A final environmental impact study is expected by next winter.

Officials have yet to figure out how to pay for any of the proposals.