Hayden Johnsen: We need to hear more about parking and less about a Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola

If a gondola basecamp is the new destination, traffic will just spill out into Sandy and onto I-215.

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

We’ve heard a lot about the recently approved plans for a fancy new gondola that is going to solve our winter traffic problems within Little Cottonwood Canyon. Proponents of a gondola see it not only as a solution but as an engineering feat that will drive year-round visitors to see the canyon from a different vantage point.

That is all fine and dandy. However, I want to hear more about plans for parking and less about the gondola itself. I realize the topic of parking is less exciting than that of the gondola, but it is where the plan that UDOT has selected fails.

Let’s start with the canyon road itself. We’ve become familiar with the snake of taillights on weekend mornings after a winter storm. Are we not giving up six to eight miles of existing pavement where traffic currently queues up?

Let’s not be naive in thinking a gondola equals a change in the behavior of outdoor enthusiasts. The dreaded snake of traffic will simply bleed farther into Sandy and onto I-215 as the destination becomes the gondola base parking lot.

For a gondola to make sense, it needs to have parking infrastructure that equals the parking capacity of both of Alta’s lots, all of Snowbird’s lots and the canyon road shoulders. Even if that can be solved, there are still a couple of massive problems.

First, the canyon road, with its rapid elevation gain and susceptibility to worse weather conditions, serves as a healthy barrier of entry which encourages carpooling. There is little incentive for skiers and snowboarders to carpool to a base station. These additional cars need to be accounted for.

Second, no one is going to tolerate riding a bus from one of the existing park and ride stations to then board a 35-minute gondola ride. The spots within the current park and ride stations will also need to be added to a master parking plan.

Even if a parking garage that meets these qualifications could be built on the selected base station site, it would be an eyesore and a nightmare to navigate during peak hours. Adding the wait time to get out of the world’s biggest parking garage to the elapsed roundtrip time of the gondola, skiers’ time commitment to access our beautiful mountains would greatly increase while simultaneously pushing traffic deeper into the Salt Lake Valley.

Our access to data and our ability to communicate information quickly are the keys to solving the traffic problem in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Historical data on traffic could determine dynamic toll rates that are heavily discounted or exempted by how many passengers are in a vehicle. The daily changing rates could be instantaneously posted to the digital sign at the mouth of the canyon, to UDOT’s website and to anyone who opts in to texts or emails. This would change the behavior that is creating traffic issues during our peak ski days.

There are great environmental and financial risks by opting into a gondola. Why would we not first try simpler solutions? We can solve this problem while also preserving the natural aesthetic of the canyon and being responsible stewards of our tax dollars.

Hayden Johnsen

Hayden Johnsen lives in Herriman with his wife, Abby, and their border collie, Tilly. He loves to ski with his brothers, who are all faster than him.