Peter Dahlberg: A tunnel to Alta should have been one of UDOT’s LCC options

State’s review of options didn’t do the research on how tunnels have been built around the world.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Environmental activists Jack Strauss and Jennifer Weiler 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.

A great alternative to building the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola is a vehicle tunnel. A vehicle tunnel could be built in a straight alignment from the gravel pit at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon to the Alta by-pass road, a distance of 8.7 miles. A vehicle tunnel would allow the canyon to retain its natural beauty (as opposed to constructing 22 gondola towers that are up to 262 feet tall).

Did you know that there are 15 vehicle tunnels in the world that are eight miles long or longer? The cost for the longest vehicle tunnel in the world (15.23 miles), the Laerdal Tunnel in Norway, can easily be found on the internet. This two-lane bidirectional tunnel was completed in 2000 with a total project cost of $113.1 million. When this cost is adjusted for inflation using the ENR Index, the cost to build the tunnel today would be $226.08 million, or $14.84 million per mile.

The tunnel has a diameter of 30 feet and was constructed using conventional drill and blast techniques. When this cost is applied to the straight alignment between the gravel pit and Alta, the total project cost would be $129 million in today’s money. UDOT has estimated the cost for the gondola alternative at $592 million.

So why didn’t UDOT consider a vehicle tunnel? They did, but first they contrived a farcical tunnel scenario which assumed, among other things that the Boring Company, founded by Elon Musk, is the only company that could build this alternative.

You can read what UDOT did in a November, 2020, document titled: “Draft Alternatives Development and Screening Report Addendum Little Cottonwood Canyon, Environmental Impact Statement Wasatch Boulevard to Alta

UDOT summarized its rejection of the tunnel alternative as follows:

“Without a fully operational tunnel system at the scale or vehicle type needed for the S.R. 210 Project, it is not possible for UDOT to verify the cost and operational characteristics of the tunnel alternative and compare the alternative against other alternatives being considered in the EIS. In addition, because The Boring Company has not drilled tunnels at the length required for Little Cottonwood Canyon in similar mountain environment, there is technical uncertainty regarding the boring technology that would be used. For these reasons, UDOT has determined that the tunnel alternative as proposed is not fully developed at a scale to be considered a reasonable alternative at this time and has eliminated the alternative from further consideration.”

This rejection seems a bit disingenuous, in that there are 16 companies that advertise tunnel building services in Tunnel Business Magazine having built thousands of tunnels with a combined length of many thousand miles. Why does UDOT pretend that only the Boring Company can build this alternative?

UDOT goes on to imply that vehicle tunnels of this length have not been built, while there are 15 vehicle tunnels in the world that are eight miles long or longer. It is interesting to note that UDOT has never mentioned that there are no gondolas in the world that are as long as the gondola that is proposed for Little Cottonwood Canyon, at a length of eight miles.

Currently, the longest gondola in the world is the Zlatibor Gold Gondola in Serbia, at 5.5 miles in length, which started operation in January 2021. If UDOT had applied the same line of reasoning used to eliminate the tunnel alternative to the gondola alternative, the gondola alternative would have been eliminated from consideration.

Shame on UDOT. They should be sent back to the drawing board.

Peter Dahlberg

Peter Dahlberg, PE, retired as general manager of Roche Engineering USA, a heavy industrial engineering firm located in Sandy. He served two years as a member of UDOT’s passenger ropeway safety committee, which oversees oversees ski lifts and funiculars in Utah.