Ann Florence: Cost of a gondola could pay for so many better things

Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola would be millions in welfare for the rich.

The Utah Department of Transportation estimates that the cost to construct a publicly funded eight-mile long, 185-foot high ski gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon will be $550 million, with $7 million required for yearly maintenance.

Utah officials never seem to learn how notoriously inept they are at estimating building costs. In 2016, the price tag for the new prison’s construction was $550 million, with it to be completed in the spring of 2021. The eventual cost came in at a staggering $1.05 billion, almost twice the original estimate, and did not open until July, 2022.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, paid consultants gave an early estimate of $860 mission for the prison, but it was kept secret from legislators throughout all the hearings and debates.

What are we not being told about the gondola? What surprises await us after construction begins?

I call this governing by stealth. We have already found out about stealthy property purchases, agreements between insiders and advertising.

Let’s be conservative and estimate the cost of the gondola at $750 million, and compare it to state funding for other programs.

Currently, one out of seven Utah children suffer from hunger insecurity, representing only a part of the 410,000 Utahans facing hunger today. Leaders of organizations serving those experiencing poverty, mental illness, unemployment, homelessness and lack of medical care are forced to beg for more state funding.

How does the gondola’s $750 million price tag measure up to the funds needed by our most vulnerable friends?

The Coalition of Religious Communities and Crossroads Urban Center are asking the Legislature to support Governor Cox’s budget, which includes:

• An additional $800,000 to support food pantries (0.1% of the gondola price tag).

• $100 million in one-time funding to help build 2,000 additional housing units (13% of the gondola).

• $19 million for tax credits and the housing trust (2.5% of the gondola).

• $5 million to build 1,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years (0.7% of the gondola).

• $30 million to convert a motel into a second family shelter and purchase land to build houses for families headed by disabled parents (4% of the gondola).

• The Domestic Violence Coalition has requested $53.5 million for victim services (7% of the gondola).

And we don’t even know yet whether these budget items will be fully funded. Judging by the past, they will not.

Many conservative legislators condemn welfare, but this is nothing more than welfare for the wealthy.

Dave Fields, Snowbird general manager, says that in his “conversations with the federal delegation that represents Utah, I’ve also seen a lot of interest and their willingness to try to get federal dollars to help support it.”

So, in addition to Utah’s low-income non-skiers, citizens of other states who will never be able never afford a ski trip to Utah could end up subsidizing winter playgrounds for the rich through a federal hand-out to those who need it least.

The gondola won’t even stop for anyone who isn’t a paying customer at Snowbird and Alta. If you want to snowshoe, go sledding, cross country ski, or take a snowy hike (which you can quietly enjoy for free), you aren’t worth anything to the ski industry’s money machine.

Jean Hill, until recently director of the Catholic Diocese’s Office of Life, Justice & Peace, told Utah news station FOX 13, “We believe all public policy should be judged by how it impacts the most vulnerable.” Funding the gondola does “horrible things for the most vulnerable, because it does absolutely nothing for them.”

A wide majority of Utahns adamantly oppose the gondola. Let’s care more about our needier brothers and sisters than demands from two highly profitable ski resorts.

Ann Florence

Ann Florence, an educator and writer, finds peace, inspiration and healing in the undisturbed beauty of the Wasatch canyons. She lives in Murray.