From the start, there was an air of inevitability around the proposal to build a gondola to access the ski resorts up Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Part of it is Utahns love big ideas, and a sleek gondola is, as I wrote last year, sexier than stodgy old buses.
More than that, though, it was the political power and the money behind the pro-gondola movement, from legislative leaders who weighed in supporting the project to the public relations push backed by the canyon ski areas.
One way or another, this was going to get done. So it was really no surprise when, on Wednesday, the Utah Department of Transportation chose the gondola as its preferred option for alleviating canyon traffic headaches.
Once it’s built —assuming it’s built — skiers would glide over the treetops in cars suspended from towers in some cases 200 feet off the ground (the height of the Hotel Monaco building downtown) for eight miles from the base of Little Cottonwood to the ski resorts, the longest gondola in the world.
If you’re a skier who has been scared off of the Cottonwood resorts because of congestion you might be pleased.
If you run Snowbird or Alta and see the chance to have a massive state-built project bring thousands of people to your front door, you’ve got to be ecstatic. Corporations love corporate welfare.
But if you’re not a resort skier and use the canyon for any other purpose — hiking, biking, climbing, camping, backcountry skiing, whatever — the prospect of disrupting so much of the canyon viewshed for an expensive project that almost exclusively benefits ski resorts is probably infuriating.
Proponents of the gondola, I will note, say that a shuttle will take hikers from Snowbird to the popular White Pine trailhead, and taking cars off the road helps backcountry skiers get to their favorite powder spots. There are also commitments to help pay the project, but how much is being worked out.
I don’t doubt UDOT’s study of the project was thorough, but any decision to go ahead with a gondola is still way too much, way too soon.
That’s because people like Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and others are correct when they argue that we still haven’t plucked the low-hanging fruit when it comes to managing canyon congestion.
We’re still not charging tolls to travel up the canyon, although work is underway to figure out the best way to do that.
Last month, the Forest Service proposed new fees at the trailheads of popular hiking trails, but the program has yet to be implemented.
Reserved parking at the ski resorts is still in its infancy.
And, if we’re being completely honest, on our current climate trajectory — with projections that temperatures at Utah ski resorts could be 3.6 to 10.8 degrees warmer by the end of the century — we can’t even say what the industry will look like 10 or 20 years from now.
Most critically, we haven’t stepped back and asked the question: How many people can this canyon realistically accommodate before we’re loving it to death?
The Central Wasatch Commission is working to provide a better answer to that most fundamental consideration, which would give us a real sense of the canyon’s maximum capacity.
Instead of laying that foundation for this work, we bought into an all-or-nothing choice between wider roads with buses or a gondola — both massive, incredibly expensive and ecologically irreparable solutions. And the gondola won out.
So what happens now? I suspect this is the first snowball in a canyon avalanche.
While the agency says it doesn’t have the money to build the monstrosity, financing is not a serious obstacle. With the powerful players who want the gondola built, UDOT could show up at the Utah Capitol and drive home with $1 billion without having to say “pretty please.”
The Legislature has already set up a Cottonwood Canyons Transportation Investment Fun that is collecting millions for regional projects — money that could easily be bonded against to finance the entire gondola construction.
We can also anticipate that the cost of the project will shoot up.
Consider the recently completed state prison project, which was initially expected to cost $550 million, but had a final price tag that was nearly double. Or take the Salt Lake International Airport rebuild, originally budgeted for $1.8 billion, coming in at more than $4 billion.
Furthermore, UDOT’s endorsement of the gondola will have repercussions on what transportation planning will look like for neighboring Big Cottonwood Canyon, an effort that is now underway.
Look for the Big Cottonwood resorts to propose extending the gondola a little farther, up over Grizzly Gulch to service the resorts over the ridge line. They’ve wanted that connection for years and the fight over the proposal has been intense.
UDOT has said it is committed to a methodical, phased-in approach. We also should make our voices heard, telling the state that we want to do all the easy things first — increased bus service; tolls both to enter the canyon and at the trailheads; a more comprehensive reserved parking system; set realistic data-driven capacity targets — before we decide if we even need a gondola.
There is still an opportunity to make sure we get this right. For the next 45 days, beginning Sept. 2, the public can weigh in on the gondola option before the decision is final.
According to Carl Fisher, executive director of the conservation group Save Our Canyons, this will be a gut-check on how much Utahns are really willing to pitch in order to stave off the gondola and help protect the canyon they love.
“This,” he said, “is our moment to shine.”