Scott Anderson: Little Cottonwood Canyon congestion demands a world-class solution

(Courtesy of UDOT Cottonwood Canyons)

A recent study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found that Utah tech companies’ greatest asset for recruiting and retaining employees is our state’s outdoor recreation opportunities. Eighty percent of respondents to the study, according to The Salt Lake Tribune’s Brian Maffly, indicated our easy access to outdoor recreation was an important consideration in moving to Utah, and an even greater factor for those moving back to Utah.

The Wasatch Front especially offers amazing outdoor recreation opportunities, including Little Cottonwood Canyon, arguably one of the crown jewels of Utah. However, this world-renowned alpine gem and invaluable economic asset is in danger of being lost unless an innovative solution is implemented that reduces vehicle traffic while improving year-round ingress and egress from the canyon.

This is not a new issue, but an issue that has grown exponentially over the past few decades and is only projected to worsen. The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) estimates the canyon sees more than 2 million visitors each year and that number is projected to increase to over 3 million by 2050. After almost 15 years of study, UDOT and its partners have identified two options to address the issue.

One proposal includes an enhanced bus system requiring widening S.R. 210 in the canyon and Wasatch Boulevard between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons to accommodate more buses and adding a half-mile of snow shed/concrete tunnels in seven of the canyon’s 64 avalanche paths. The other, and much preferable solution in my opinion, is the high-capacity, zero-emission gondola system.

Between the two proposals, a gondola system would clearly accomplish UDOT’s goal of improving canyon transportation while preserving the canyon’s future. Building the proposed gondola would remove up to 1,400 vehicles from the canyon per hour on the busiest days and improve air quality by removing thousands of tons of emissions from our environment each year. Moreover, the gondola would remove the demand to widen the roads and eliminate the need to construct the unsightly concrete sheds.

While the proposed snow sheds would be a key feature in reducing the risk of avalanches causing road closures, they would be completely unnecessary with a gondola in place. The gondola would operate in all but the most treacherous weather conditions or during active avalanche control in the canyon.

Imagine it’s a prime powder day and, instead of waiting for hours in your car for the canyon to open, you’re flying up the canyon in a high-tech, heated gondola car watching UDOT snowplows valiantly work to clear the road. Fast forward 10 hours and instead of being stuck in the “red snake” heading down the canyon, it takes you only half an hour to reach the gondola base station. You’re home safe and sound before most of the traffic has made it to Tanner’s Flat.

A gondola means goodbye to canyon closures and gridlock traffic, and their impacts on canyon visitors and the environment. And let’s not forget the more than 3,000 people who work in the canyon. Their personal health and safety, as well as their jobs, rely on traveling safely up and down the canyon. To put it simply, the gondola would be a reliable, environmentally responsible transportation system for the canyon that’s known as the most avalanche-prone highway in North America.

I applaud UDOT for proposing the gondola and La Caille base station. Creating the world’s longest gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon is a bold, innovative transportation solution that will help preserve the canyon for generations to come.

A. Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson is president and CEO of Zions Bank and a community member of The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board.