Andy White: Buses make more sense than an expensive gondola in the canyons

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The ski slopes in Big Cottonwood canyon draws a steady stream of heavy traffic, slowing the line of cars during a recent weekend morning.

Thank you Mr. Rafferty, for your perspective on the Little Cottonwood Canyon traffic quandary. (”Gondola is the answer for year-round canyon access,” Nathan Rafferty, Tribune, July 17).

As I drove there recently, I realized the gondola alternative, with stations only at Snowbird and Alta, would do nothing to address the needs of people wishing to visit White Pine, Red Pine or Maybird Lakes or Lisa Falls. A 2016 Utah State University study estimates about a third, 782,190, of LCC’s annual visitors are resort patrons meaning many of the other 1,417,253 would reap little benefit from a gondola. Flexible bus runs could solve that.

You suggest a 30-passenger gondola cabin would arrive every 30 seconds and move 3,500 to 4,000 people per hour up the canyon, but the UDOT alternatives summary says it would leave every two minutes. Thirty people every two minutes only puts 900 people per hour up the canyon.

The gondola is estimated to cost $393 million. A bus chassis is estimated to last a dozen years and would need three engine rebuilds in that time, making it cost somewhere near half a million dollars over its lifetime. $393 million would buy and maintain almost 800 buses.

If a bus loads every two minutes, it also puts 900 people per hour up the canyon.

$393 million would buy and rebuild enough buses to transport the current number of canyon visitors for 80 years. You stated the gondola’s lifespan is three times that of a bus. Three times 12 is only 36 years.

Touting the gondola as “the only electric option” that would reduce a number of our air pollutants might be true right now, but electric cars are on the upswing in the US and 80,000 electric buses were delivered globally in 2018.

And what do you do with your transit system when you don't need to get 1,000 people per hour up the canyon? If it's fixed in place, maybe you continue to make your monthly payments and paint it.

If it’s a fleet of buses, you could run a summer schedule with stops at popular places and share the costs with the National Park Service, etc., letting them serve visitors in Zion National Park or other heavily used venues.

One oft voiced drawback to buses is the canyon-closing avalanche threat, but a canyon avalanche path map suggests most of Snowbird and much of Alta is also in avalanche terrain and must be stabilized before resorts can open. Do the patrols deem the runs safe for the public significantly earlier than UDOT can clear the road?

The viability of skiing as a long-term economic venture is occasionally raised but, Ski Utah data shows three of the last four years have had more skier days than any in the last 10 (through the 2019 season).

Countering that optimism, a table compiled by onthesnow.com shows a rather regular yearly snowfall decrease for Alta from 574″ in 2009 to 486, 360, 404, 303, 436, 278, and 249 in 2016. The last 4 years have been up but since a 1994-95 high of 745″ the trend has been generally down.

“New analysis by the Climate Impact Lab brings more bad news for American skiers ... Within the next 20 years, the number of days at or below freezing in some of the most popular ski towns in the US will decline by weeks or even a month. If global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at the same pace that they did in the first decade of this century, ski resorts could see half as many sub-freezing days ... by late century ... American ski areas will ... face significantly shorter seasons in the years ahead.” — Climate Impact Lab, Feb. 8, 2018.

So what's the answer? What's the question? What do we want to do? Alleviate winter driving and parking problems in the canyon? Provide a Disneyland ride? Adjust canyon usage to its reasonable carrying capacity? Subsidize one of my favorite sports?

Of the three alternatives currently on the UDOT table, I prefer an enhanced bus scenario but without personal vehicles.

That’s my 700 words. May we all consider honestly and carefully and cooperate for the best.

Andy White

Andy White is an educator retired from service in Salt Lake & Park City school districts, and an independent school in the valley. The outdoors is one of his passions.