Dave Fields: The gondola is the right solution for our future

Dave Fields

This last week was yet another reminder of the beauty that surrounds us, as the fall hues hit their peak in the canyons. Hundreds of Utahns waited in traffic to enjoy the gem of nature that is in our backyard. It’s a sight we want our grandchildren to enjoy too, and we have the opportunity to get people out of their cars and improve the canyon experience for everyone – instead of locking the next generation out behind us.

Monday marks the end of the final public comment period of UDOT’s nearly five-year environmental study of how to meet transportation needs in one of those canyons. In partnership with UTA and the Forest Service, UDOT whittled down 124 original concepts to five alternatives, to now the preferred solution of a gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The decision comes with the input of more than 14,000 comments, which is the most in UDOT’s history. People care about this canyon and there has never been a more robust, detailed and deliberate process to consider every option that will best serve the community and protect this revered place. UDOT’s environmental impact study (EIS) has been exhaustive and collaborative and concludes that gondola is the least impactful solution, and we applaud the years of work that has been done, but it is just the latest chapter in the decades-long discussion about transportation in the canyon.

Both Snowbird and Alta have implemented and supported temporary fixes to the safety and congestion issues we face as part of daily operations. Before UDOT’s EIS even started, Alta Ski Area began a three-year traffic analysis using transportation data company StreetLight Data to determine how many cars that entered the canyon ended up at Snowbird and Alta. Using location-based data from smart phones and car navigation devices, the study tracked traffic on an annual and monthly basis and found the average percentage of Little Cottonwood traffic that had Alta or Snowbird as its destination was 87% from 2018-2020. And these visitors are not just skiers. While December of 2018 saw the highest percentage of resort visitors (98%), the next highest resort destination month in all three years was May 2020, when 95% of cars up the canyon ended up passing Snowbird’s Entry 1.

Mass transit is the answer to manage crowds and it is needed year-round. That’s why for years Snowbird has paid for season passholders to ride the ski bus and provided ride services for employees through carpool vans and shuttles. We will continue to pay for employees and season passholders to ride the gondola. Both Alta and Snowbird have implemented different forms of parking reservations and continue to modify those programs to achieve the most desirable impacts on traffic and vehicle occupancy. Snowbird also developed a carpooling app that incentivized carpooling and the use of mass transit. Tolling in the canyon must be considered as part of multi-canyon system with Big Cottonwood Canyon and is not a solution in and of itself.

While helpful in the short-term, our efforts and the phasing being recommended by UDOT, are short-term tactics which have already been tried to deal with current population but turn a blind eye to Utah’s future growth.

Thirty years ago, we were fighting against light passenger rail in the Salt Lake Valley using many of the same arguments against gondola. It was defeated in a county-wide vote. Even our congressional representative at the time fought against federal funding for light rail!

Now, TRAX and FrontRunner have expanded across county lines to shuttle our booming population across the Wasatch Front in a way only a few could foresee at the time of debate. Both are now very successful transportation systems and we know now it was the right solution for the Wasatch Front.

Today we are at another moment to big thinking for the future. Big ideas take big investment and the time to act is now. Utah has chosen to take another trailblazing step toward innovative transportation solutions in order to help air quality, water quality, and safety in Little Cottonwood Canyon – a gondola is the big idea to take us there.

Dave Fields is president and general manager of Snowbird.