To say the proposed eight-mile-long gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon is controversial is an understatement.
The gondola — which the Utah Department of Transportation announced Wednesday would move forward — has caused several packed public meetings, sparked protests and led to the creation of advocacy groups for and against it. It also spurred 50,000 comments from the public, the most of any UDOT project.
But UDOT doesn’t keep a tally of how many comments are against the gondola and how many support its construction.
Why is that?
“UDOT doesn’t tally the comments as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes like a referendum, as the process is not a public vote,” said Josh Van Jura, the UDOT project manager over the Little Cottonwood EIS, in an email Thursday. The statement from Van Jura echoed what UDOT said in a tweet Wednesday regarding the department’s record of decision.
“Rather, public comments are an opportunity for UDOT to field suggestions or criticism for a project and to evaluate whether additional engineering or environmental analysis were needed based on the feedback.”
UDOT did, however, take the time to categorize the comments. In the latest batch released this week, all collected in recent months, UDOT included tags on each public comment according to the sentiments raised in the comments. That means if a comment was in opposition to the gondola, it would receive a specific code, as spelled out in a document released by UDOT last year. Different positions have specific codes based on the opinions expressed.
In theory, one could sort through the comments and see how many comments were tagged with the anti-gondola code as opposed to the pro-gondola code. That’s exactly what Salt Lake City resident Nick Firmani did after UDOT released the newest public comments.
According to his analysis — which he posted on Reddit — 8,990 comments were tagged with the anti-gondola code, while 1,112 comments had the pro-gondola tag. Firmani said the new UDOT document contained around 13,000 comments, meaning there were still plenty of public comments that didn’t include their stance on the gondola.
Van Jura said Friday that he disagreed with the notion the codes are used to sort comments into pro- or anti-gondola boxes. He told The Tribune the codes are meant to give detailed responses to each comment, which UDOT included in the same document that specifies the codes.
For example, a comment that mentions the gondola would be directed to the reasons why UDOT picked the gondola over other options. The document says the gondola was picked because of travel reliability, transit mode travel time, delays due to snow removal on roads and environmental concerns.
Another analysis done by KUTV last November found that of the 35,000 comments publicly available at that time, the majority — around 61% — were against the gondola. About 35% of comments supported the gondola, while the remaining 4% didn’t have an opinion.
Van Jura said the tens of thousands of public comments had a large impact on how the department approached addressing traffic in Little Cottonwood, most notably by starting with expanded bus services.
“I’m fully confident that we have both a more complete and accurate final EIS and record of decision,” he said Wednesday morning.
A number of elected officials around Salt Lake have made it clear they don’t want the gondola, including Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski — both of whom made public statements Wednesday voicing their dissatisfaction with the gondola project moving forward.
“It is disheartening to learn of UDOT’s decision of record to proceed with plans to construct a gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon despite overwhelming community opposition,” Zoltanski said in a statement.
The public comments, which consisted of thousands of pages, are available as part of the agency’s record of decision.
People voiced their opposition to the project for different reasons, with many arguing the project — which is now estimated to cost over $728 million in taxpayer money — would almost solely benefit the canyon’s two ski resorts, Snowbird and Alta, and would only serve a handful of Utah’s population.
“This is a terrible idea,” wrote one commenter in the most recent batch of public comments. “The environmental impact from adding this gondola will be massive. These canyons are important wildlife corridors that are irreplaceable. DO NOT PUT UP THE GONDOLA.”
Supporters argued the gondola is a more efficient way to get people in and out of the canyon, saying it’s more environmentally responsible in the long term and safer than having drivers brave the winter road conditions.
“I support the Gondola project 100%,” wrote one commenter during the recent comment period. “Having lived here for 12 years the traffic situation for locals AND tourists is atrocious. The ski resorts are world renowned, climbers and hikers have rights also but the impact is on hundreds of thousands of skiers.”