Nathan Rafferty: Gondola is the answer for year-round canyon access

The heat of the summer is not the time of year my organization is typically tackling our industry’s biggest challenges, but I write in support of a solution to an issue that’s been discussed for decades: How do we protect the mountains we love, while still being able to enjoy what they have to offer?

The Utah Department of Transportation is in the midst of an environmental impact study for transportation options in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Among those options is a gondola proposal, which is the safest, least-polluting, least-impactful, highest-capacity, revenue-generating transportation solution under consideration. And I urge UDOT to consider an alternative proposal to move the base station less than a mile west of the mouth of the canyon to a property next to the La Caille estate – which would fill in the remaining pieces to this transportation puzzle.

The Cottonwood Canyon ski resorts have invested in the utilization of ski buses for decades, however the bus is vulnerable to all of the same weather-related issues that inhibit personal vehicle travel, including avalanches, landslides and traction issues. Cars cannot be the transportation answer in a canyon with 64 avalanche paths and an average of 500 inches of The Greatest Snow on Earth per winter.

Recent vehicle travel reductions related to COVID-19 have illustrated the immediate impacts less driving can have on Wasatch Front air quality. Carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 56% from the gondola running 12 hours a day, as compared to 3,500 cars per day traveling the canyon. The gondola is the only electric option that would reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) and volatile organic compounds in the canyon atmosphere.

Constructing an additional lane to SR 210 would have major impacts to the environment and water quality. While I do not dispute the safety implications of building snow sheds at three of the major slide paths, that still leaves 61 avalanche paths unmitigated and the construction impact of building massive concrete structures in the canyon.

SR 210 operates at the whim of Mother Nature and too often people are stuck for hours trying to get up or down the canyon. Current gondola technology functions in high winds and accommodates large spans that can put towers where there are no avalanche risks. Safe ingress and egress, regardless of weather conditions, is paramount in the solution for Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation.

UDOT should give careful consideration to the alternative gondola La Caille base station proposal featuring a parking structure west of SR 210 that is at grade and includes designated bus circulation between mobility hubs. This proposal would dramatically reduce the amount of private vehicle traffic on Wasatch Boulevard and in the canyon.

Gondola technology has come a long way in the last decade, and under the La Caille vision a 3S (three cables) gondola system could move 4,000 passengers an hour at up to 8.5 meters a second. That means a 30-passenger cabin would arrive every 30 seconds, resulting in a 27-minute ride to Snowbird and a few more minutes to Alta.

A gondola’s lifespan is three times the lifespan of a bus. The gondola is also the only option that has the opportunity to share capital and maintenance costs through public-private partnerships.

In order to preserve this treasured area, both environmentally and recreationally, we must plan for its future use in a sustainable way. Gondola is a long-term transportation solution that is cost-effective, clean, and efficient. It is the best means to provide safe transportation to year-round visitors while having the least physical impact on Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Nathan Rafferty

Nathan Rafferty is the president and CEO of Ski Utah.