SALT LAKE CITY — A rapid bus service or a gondola from the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta are the two preferred alternative transportation options that Utah transportation officials are weighing for the future of travel through the canyon.
While a seasonal bus service already exists in the canyon, what exactly would a gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon look like?
Gondola Works, a coalition composed of multiple Utah organizations and businesses advocating the gondola option, released a video Tuesday that may help visualize the proposal. The video, created with the help of Ensign Engineering, Beecher Walker Architects, Bowen Studios and cable car manufacturer Doppelmayr, simulates the project's concepts and even what it might look like to have a gondola that runs above the canyon.
Dave Fields, the general manager for Snowbird Resort and a representative of Gondola Works, said he believes the video can help people better understand the project.
"This shows how unobtrusive the gondola really is. And what an amazing experience to get this new perspective of the canyon from above," he wrote, in an email to KSL.com. "Not everyone in Utah is familiar with gondolas and how many people they can move in a very short period of time."
The plan calls for a base station at La Caille at the mouth of the canyon that would include about 1,500 parking stalls at the base, according to Joshua Van Jura, Utah Department of Transportation's Little Cottonwood Canyon project manager. He said the gondola cars can seat at least 20 people and would run every two minutes during peak times, such as busy ski/snowboard recreation days.
UDOT estimates it would take about 37 minutes to ride the gondola from La Caille restaurant to Alta with a stop at Snowbird Resort in between. It estimates the project would cost about $592 million in capital costs with $7.6 million in annual operation and maintenance costs, which ends up about the same cost as the bus service and a road extension over the course of a 30-year span.
Van Jura said it would take about three years to construct the gondola system if UDOT goes in that direction.
The Gondola Works video shows concepts of a large parking structure with 1,800 stalls near La Caille, with Utah Transit Authority bus stops placed adjacent to the structure. They also envision the base camp containing hundreds of lockers that people can rent and store equipment in. So people could park at the structure or take a bus there, get a bite to eat at La Caille and grab their skis before they board the gondola.
From there, the gondola would provide a scenic aerial view of the canyon as people make their way up toward Snowbird and then Alta. Gondola Works claims in the video that it would decrease vehicle emissions by 56% as fewer people drive up the canyon.
Snowbird already has a gondola service within its resort. Fields argues that the gondola system would be safer, more reliable and sustainable than the other option.
"We need a transportation system that can get people in and out of the canyon regardless of how hard it's snowing or avalanches crossing the highway. Buses get stuck on slick roads just like personal vehicles," he said. "Little Cottonwood Canyon needs a long-term solution that doesn't destroy the watershed, mountainside or wildlife habitat. Gondolas don't require more pavement and are much better for air quality."
It'll ultimately be up to UDOT as to what project becomes reality. The agency is also weighing an expansion to state Route 210 with the proposed bus service expansion. Both options are currently up for public comment that runs through Aug. 9.
Van Jura said last week that one of the proposals will be selected either by the end of this year or in early 2022. Once a decision is made, UDOT will begin to look for revenue streams to fund the project it has chosen.
Should the gondola be selected, Fields said Snowbird is one of a few organizations "willing to help" with the funding through a possible public-private partnership. It would also encourage employees and season pass holders to ride the gondola, much like it does with bus reimbursements.
UDOT plans to host a pair of meetings on the project next month. An open house is scheduled to begin July 13 at 4:30 p.m. with a presentation at 6 p.m. at Butler Middle School, 7530 S. 2700 East in Cottonwood Heights. There will also be a virtual public presentation at 6 p.m. on July 20.