David P. Carter: UDOT’s Little Cottonwood Canyon alternatives are taxpayer-funded ski resort subsidies

(Suzanne Paylor | The Salt Lake Tribune) Motorists have trouble driving in Little Cottonwood Canyon during a storm on Friday, November 29, 2019.

When Utah transportation officials unveiled their most recent analysis of Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation solutions, they identified two preferred alternatives. Under one, $561 million would be spent to construct the world’s longest gondola, running from the bottom of the canyon to Snowbird and Alta. Under the other, $510 million would be spent to add bus-only shoulder lanes to S.R. 210 and increase the number of buses servicing the ski resorts (and only the ski resorts) to 24 buses an hour on peak days.

Both alternatives amount to half billion-dollar subsidies to Snowbird and Alta — but this is no fluke. The Utah Department of Transportation’s (UDOT) environmental impact statement (EIS) process was designed such that no matter which option officials select, it will amount to a taxpayer gift to the ski industry.

The EIS is mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires agencies to weigh the environmental consequences and consider potential alternatives to major actions involving federal funding, work performed by the federal government or permits issued by federal offices. Scholars argue that because an EIS is only required to include alternatives that address a stated project purpose and need, agencies narrow the purposes of proposed projects to strategically limit the scope of alternatives they must consider.

The Little Cottonwood Canyon project purpose and need is designed such that it serves a narrow and privileged constituency. The project’s stated purpose is “to substantially improve roadway safety, reliability, and mobility of S.R. 210,” ignoring environmental sustainability and the carrying capacity of the ecologically rich (and vulnerable) canyon. UDOT further identified winter peak travel periods “related to visits to ski areas, with the greatest traffic volumes on weekends and holidays and during and after snowstorms” as project needs — effectively ensuring that ski resorts’ interests would override those of other canyon users.

The evidence of a skewed EIS process is simple. Under either preferred alternative, passengers would only be deposited at two destinations: Snowbird and Alta.

The narrow vision propelling the project will cost more than the over $500 million price tag. UDOT’s own analysis reveals that while a gondola represents the highest visual impact, both alternatives would impair visitors’ visual and auditory experiences in this unique destination. Furthermore, although the draft EIS claims that impacts would not exceed mandated water quality standards, either gondola tower erection or roadway widening would unquestionably undermine the quality of both surface and groundwater in this vital part of the Wasatch watersheds (which provide over 50% of Salt Lake City’s drinking water).

Dispersed recreators stand to lose more than they would gain from the project. Backcountry skiers would bare a greater burden of the planned tolling or the cost of gondola or bus fare — unless they enjoy the free transit that is sure to accompany ski resort passes. Rock climbers would have to put up with gondola cars buzzing by as they climb at the Gate Buttress or adjust to the permanent loss of world class bouldering that widening of S.R. 210 would require. All dispersed recreation users, from trail runners to bird watchers, would be negatively impacted by the reduction in parking proposed alongside all of the alternatives, unless their destination is one of the two ski resorts.

To be sure, there are vocal proponents of UDOT’s alternatives — chief of whom are the ski resorts themselves. So is Gov. Spencer Cox, who seems partial to the gondola and recently named Snowbird and Alta as central EIS beneficiaries: “[T]his is good for [the ski resorts] — it is good for business ... they’re pretty excited about it and so are we.”

With such powerful economic and political support, it seems that UDOT’s final EIS — slated to drop in winter 2021/2022 — will set the stage for significant and permanent new infrastructure in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

But it is not inevitable. You have until Sept. 3 to submit formal comments via UDOT’s EIS page and can contact Cox’s office anytime to let him know your preference for the future of Little Cottonwood Canyon. It’s likely only through robust civic opposition that Wasatch residents can prevent the UDOT EIS process from amounting to a costly ski resort subsidy.

David Paul Carter

David P. Carter is an assistant professor of public policy and administration at the University of Utah’s Department of Political Science. Among Carter’s areas of expertise are environmental regulation and natural resource management, including civic recreation along Utah’s Wasatch Front.