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Brad T. Rutledge: Pick a Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation solution that solves the problem

Expensive gondola would be just a fancy ski lift to boost ski resort private profits.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Community member Jennifer Weiler, Dani Poirier with Wasatch Back County Alliance and Jack Stauss, from left, fly large balloons over the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, to demonstrate the height of gondola towers the Utah Department of Transportation is proposing be built to carry people up to Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.

As we consider the best solution to the traffic problems in Little Cottonwood Canyon, it’s important that decisions are based on facts and are clear of political or private business bias. The outcome of UDOT’s process will be expensive (more than half a billion taxpayer dollars). The wrong solution threatens to permanently scar the canyon while not solving the problem.

UDOT’s first option is an enhanced bus service, with road widening and installing “avalanche sheds.” UDOT correctly states the bus option is the best for improved mobility. The second is a gondola that stretches from the canyon entrance to Alta, includes snowsheds and road modifications.

The gondola is not a transportation solution. It’s a fancy ski lift serving to boost the profits of two private companies, and will only operate during the winter ski resort season.

Travel times are important in selecting a solution that will get people out of their cars to ride public transit. UDOT estimates the gondola will take 55 to 59 minutes to ride, as compared to 38 minutes to ride the bus, and 36 minutes for private vehicles. Limited gondola station parking and fees will force many to park at a distant parking lot to take a bus to the base station, all before stepping onto the gondola.

Riding the gondola means people will arrive 23 minutes later than all other alternatives (even later for those who need to take the additional bus to the base station). The purpose of these transportation options is to transport people to their destination. With that in mind, it’s hard to believe people will get out of their car to ride the gondola, knowing they’ll arrive 20-30 minutes later than all other options. We’re not buying it.

UDOT says the gondola is most reliable option during high avalanche danger. However, the gondola will not run every time avalanche teams use artillery for avalanche control. Further, when avalanche shooting over the gondola takes place, cabins must be unloaded from cables, cables and towers must be inspected and then cars reloaded onto cables before gondola operations resume.

When avalanche conditions are very high and an Interlodge order is in effect (all canyon users legally required to be inside), the gondola will not run. Storms with high winds/lightning/ice events, mechanical issues/power outages also stop the gondola. With the variety of conditions that will stop the gondola, the reliability advantage is eroded.

The gondola will never serve users who want to stop at trailheads or climbing areas (something that buses have the flexibility to do), and remember UDOT only plans to operate it during the winter. This means people will be driving their cars to trailheads, and to events like Snowbird’s Oktoberfest, as the gondola mockingly sits as an idle eyesore from its 200-foot towers.

We need solutions now. Adding more buses to the existing roadway can be more quickly implemented, while providing more long-term flexibility. Buses can be successful without widening the road. Expanded bus service that picks people up from numerous locations across the valley, with express buses to the resorts, and shuttles for dispersed trailhead users, combined with tolling/paid parking for private vehicles and effective enforcement of the traction policies, is a formula to address the problem at lower costs, and without permanently damaging the canyon.

Some people roll their eyes at buses, but Utah has never invested enough resources to make the canyon ski bus system truly effective.

Addressing this problem is a once in a generation opportunity. We hope others will join Wasatch Backcountry Alliance as we voice our support for a bus solution that addresses the traffic issue for all canyon users. The deadline to submit comments to UDOT is Sept. 3.

Brad T. Rutledge | Wasatch Backcountry Alliance

Brad T. Rutledge is a co-founder and board member of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance.

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