If resorts want a gondola, they — not you — should pay for it, George Pyle writes

Mayors from both ends of Little Cottonwood Canyon are united against expensive plan.

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) An anti-gondola banner displayed by protestors at the Little Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride on Saturday, September 25, 2021.

Even though I had three of them in my office last week, we never did figure out what the collective noun for a group of mayors is.

You know, like a heard of cattle, a pride of lions, an exaltation of larks. A lord of mayors? A gavel? A municipality?

The question doesn’t come up often because, usually, any given room contains no more than one mayor. So when the mayors of Salt Lake County, the city of Sandy and the town of Alta form an alliance to bring a case they very strongly agree on before The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board, attention should be paid.

Alta Mayor Roger Bourke, Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson (Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall sent her public utilities director) are together on this idea: The proposed gondola to bring people from the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon to the ski resorts of Snowbird and Alta is a very bad idea.

It’s not just that the plan put forward recently by the Utah Department of Transportation would be darned expensive — a $550 million price tag that must be assumed to be a low estimate — it’s that it would do more harm than good.

Bourke, as mayor of the tourist-dependent town of Alta, might be expected to cheer any project that would bring more spendy people his way. But his town already has more than enough.

“Alta is the gem in the crown of the Wasatch,” Bourke said. “Easy to destroy and impossible to restore.”

The mayors agreed that UDOT’s normal mandate, to move as many people as possible from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, is misplaced in this case. Before asking how to move more people up the canyon, we should seriously examine the question of why.

(The expression “up the canyon” strikes me as something that must be unique to Utah. Other places I’ve lived, one goes down a canyon.)

Sandy’s Zoltanski and the county’s Wilson are worried a gondola, with a boarding platform at the mouth of the canyon, can only take some traffic off Utah Route 210 by pushing it further into Sandy and Cottonwood Heights.

“The people of Sandy,” Zoltanski said, “do not want to be the doormat for the gondola.”

Laura Briefer, Salt Lake City’s utilities director, said that not only is $550 million 10 times what the state recently allocated for the much more pressing need of building affordable housing, but also that it threatens the already vulnerable purity of the mountain watershed that Salt Lake City, Sandy and the other cities of the Salt Lake Valley depend on for water.

Briefer called the gondola a work of giant industrial infrastructure that just wouldn’t fit in the beautiful, fragile canyon. And Tom Ward, Briefer’s opposite number in Sandy, called the whole plan a GOOF — that’s Gondola Over Forests.

The mayors were united in that there are much cheaper, much less disruptive, ideas for managing traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Highway tolls and resort parking fees that get smaller the more people you have in your car. More buses. Electric buses. Reservation systems. All ideas that UDOT proposes before building the gondola. And it could be done for less than half the cost, they say.

They also note, correctly, that the plan to deposit passengers at only two places — Snowbird and Alta — benefits the owners of those resorts but does nothing for all the intermediate trailheads, picnic areas and cabins. Or for Big Cottonwood Canyon.

If the resorts and the Utah Legislature really want this gondola, and the mayors and their towns don’t, let’s let the free market settle it.

Instead of more socialism for the rich, where working-class taxpayers from Rose Park to Price pay for this flying carpet, create an authority to sell bonds to pay for the gondola. Revenue bonds that would be repaid, not from general tax revenue, but from money raised from the resorts. Fees on gondola tickets, lift tickets, resort parking, highway tolls, plus extra sales taxes on food, booze, hotel rooms, equipment rentals, ski lessons, the lot.

Let Wall Street pencil out whether that would be enough income to repay the bonds, plus interest, the same way the new $4 billion Salt Lake City Airport paid for itself.

Of course, as some Utah state officials have ruefully noted, investors increasingly care about the sustainability of their investments. So something that would — and should — factor in to whether anyone would buy gondola bonds would be a cold calculation as to whether, due to climate change, Utah’s ski industry has another 30 years left in it.

That reality is likely to mean that the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola will never get off the ground.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, belongs to a harrumph of editorial writers.


Twitter, @debatestate