SALT LAKE CITY — Regardless of which is picked, it will be staggeringly expensive.
A $592-million, 8-mile gondola? Or $510 million for enhanced bus service with a wider road?
Those two options have so far made the cut as the most viable solutions to solving the snarl of traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon on powder days, when thousands of skiers and snowboarders flock to experience what's made Utah famous: the Wasatch Mountains' "greatest snow on Earth."
The Utah Department of Transportation isn't slated to make a final recommendation between those two options from its draft environmental impact study until this upcoming 2021-22 ski season.
But hype is already mounting for one of those options: the gondola.
There's nothing like it that currently exists in Utah or the nation. The closest comparison? Think the 2.7-mile, Peak 2 Peak gondola in Canada's Whistler Blackcomb Resort. Or the vast, 4.9-mile gondola in Vietnam that uses the same 3S lift technology.
But is it really the right thing for Utah? Does a bus system serve more people more cheaply? And do the political players supporting the gondola have a financial motive to support it?
Gondola supporters describe it as an air-quality friendly, avalanche-proof solution that would finally provide powder hounds with a totally different alternative to get up the canyon, other than driving up what they describe as a treacherous road where traffic grinds to a halt at the first slide-off.
Supporters of increased bus service worry that what they believe is a more commonsense solution — the bus route — is getting lost in the gondola hype.
That hype, gondola detractors point out, is largely being fueled by a coalition of stakeholders that they say could financially benefit from a new landmark that could not only increase the number of skiers accessing resorts in Little Cottonwood Canyon, but also one that could act as a new tourist attraction in and of itself.
"People are concerned about it. ... I know that people are suspicious about it," said Brad Rutledge, co-founder of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, a group that supports enhanced bus service. "There's a couple of individuals and entities that stand to just make a ton of money, you know, from this vision."
However, those stakeholders say the gondola wouldn't just benefit their industries, but all who recreate in the canyons. They argue it's Utah's best chance to revolutionize transportation in Little Cottonwood Canyon while also helping protect that canyon.
Who are the players?
Gondola Works is made up of stakeholders from the ski industry — Snowbird, Alta Ski Area, Ski Utah, POWDR — and prominent Utah public relations firms including Exoro Group and Love Communications.
Gondola Works recently circulated to Utah newsrooms a video promoting what the La Caille gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon would look like, featuring the La Caille base station, a 1,800-stall parking garage, ski lockers and a snack bar inside the lift station.
Aside from the ski industry, there are other financial forces at play.
The Gondola Works coalition also includes the real estate company CW Management, owned by former state Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and former Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless.
Both Niederhauser and McCandless, who no longer hold elected offices, confirmed to the Deseret News they are under contract to purchase the plot of land where the gondola would be built. Niederhauser said they expect to close on the property "in the next two months."
The now-undeveloped parcel is directly off state Route 210, less than a mile northwest from the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon and less than a quarter-mile northeast of the high-end French restaurant La Caille in Sandy.
The La Caille area wasn't originally included in the Utah Department of Transportation environmental impact study when it first launched in 2018. It was added after Niederhauser and McCandless proposed the site for a possible gondola base station. Originally, UDOT only considered a gondola at the park-and-ride lot at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
But the park-and-ride lot at the mouth of the canyon had problems. It wouldn't be big enough for both a station and parking. Instead, gondola riders would have to park at "mobility hubs," one at the gravel pit and one at 9400 S. Highland Drive, then take a bus to the lift station. The La Caille gondola would have room for a 1,500-car parking garage, but would also pair with those "mobility hubs" for overflow parking.
The former Senate president and former councilman said they put forth the La Caille gondola proposal during UDOT's public comment period from June to July last year.
"We asked them to consider the La Caille base station as an option because, quite frankly, it simply makes a lot of sense," McCandless said. "But because this property wasn't available when they were doing their study, they didn't consider it. And then we came along and said, 'We could accommodate this. This is pretty cool.'"
McCandless didn't seek another term after 14 years on the Sandy City Council and left the office at the end of 2019. Niederhauser, who was first elected to Utah's Senate in 2006 and served as its president for six years, didn't seek reelection and left office at the end of 2018. Currently, Niederhauser serves as Gov. Spencer Cox's homeless coordinator, a job he said currently has more of his focus than his work with CW Management.
After he left the Sandy City Council, McCandless said La Caille's owner "called us and asked us if we could help with that property and turn it into something — it has to be absolutely extraordinary."
McCandless said members of the Despain family, which owns the company ROLA V Ltd. listed as the owner of the property being considered for the gondola, are good friends of his from when he was a ski patrolman in Park City, he said.
"They recognize this is a great opportunity to save the canyon, to not only get a great transportation system, but Snowbird's going to give us Superior to Flagstaff," McCandless said, referring to an area in Little Cottonwood Canyon's backcountry from Mount Superior to Flagstaff Mountain. "All that property up there will never get developed."
Dave Fields, general manager and chief operating officer at Snowbird, said if the La Caille gondola is picked, the ski resort is "willing to put our private lands outside the ski resort, which includes Mount Superior," in a conservation easement "forever."
"Because we're so convinced this is the right way to go," Fields said.
The gondola concept has already gained traction with prominent Utah leaders. Gov. Spencer Cox said earlier this year he was "very interested" and "leaning toward" the gondola proposal, though he was quick to add the public process needs to play out first. The governor didn't have anything more to say on the topic at this stage of the process, according to his spokeswoman.
Is a gondola about making money or problem-solving?
McCandless and Niederhauser said they have plans in the works to develop the entire property into single-family homes. But, if the gondola is picked, they said they would parse out that section of the property for the lift station, and only put single-family homes on the north side of the property. If it's not picked, they would build seven more homes there.
Both McCandless and Niederhauser said their decision to offer up the land for the gondola wasn't about money. They said they'd likely make more of a profit if they developed all homes there instead.
"We're not making any money on the gondola, that's for sure," McCandless said. "Our commitment is to help provide a base station, and we're going to sell it for exactly what we're buying it for."
Niederhauser echoed that sentiment.
"We won't make any money off of giving that property or selling it to UDOT," Niederhauser said. "We wouldn't be able to develop homes there. It's just really a trade-off for us."
"Quite frankly," McCandless said, "it'll probably damage our ability to sell homes, sitting right next to a parking structure."
Niederhauser acknowledged a possible "ancillary benefit" to that whole area if a gondola is built there: increased property values. "But that's not the reason we did it."
Instead, the former Senate president and former Sandy councilman said they're motivated by what they see as the solution to canyon gridlock that has plagued their neighborhoods for decades. Traffic backs up for miles into neighborhoods after fresh snow falls in the mountains, luring skiers.
"It's an unbelievable mess," said Niederhauser, who lives in Sandy.
The traffic problem
As Utah's population and its mountains' popularity has grown, so has its traffic problem. The average annual daily traffic on Little Cottonwood Canyon is expected to grow from 6,600 vehicles in 2015 to about 8,500 vehicles in 2050, based on a historical growth rate of 1.2% from 2003 to 2017, according to UDOT's study. On the busiest day in winter 2017, about 14,300 vehicles were counted by UDOT's automated traffic counters. Based on historic growth, that number could increase to about 18,500 vehicles on the busiest day in 2050, UDOT wrote.
The canyon's traffic problem isn't only on snow days. It's also bad on weekends and holidays. Historically, Little Cottonwood Canyon has seen its highest traffic days from late December, typically around the Christmas holiday, through March, according to UDOT. Traffic clogs the canyon on winter mornings and afternoons as ski resorts open and close their lifts. The "greatest traffic volumes," UDOT wrote in its draft study, occur "on weekends and holidays and during and after snowstorms."
"We just want to solve the problem," McCandless said. "A gondola will be, we think, the thing and the item that saves Little Cottonwood Canyon. ... There is no question in my mind that the gondola is the right choice because it checks all of the boxes."
To anyone who might think Niederhauser and McCandless used their political power to influence UDOT's environmental impact study, the former Senate president said the process is based on facts and insulated from undue influence.
"You can't interfere with that process without jeopardizing its ability to defend itself in a lawsuit," Niederhauser said. "So UDOT was very careful not to have people influence that process. ... the (environmental impact statement) goes forward kind of in a sheltered situation."
Snowbird is also more interested in protecting Little Cottonwood Canyon into the future than it is in money, Fields said.
"There is a finite number of people that can be at Alta and Snowbird on any given day, and we're not interested in ruining the ski experience," Fields said. "We want people to have a good time. It's in our best interest that when they come here it's not overcrowded."
The ski resorts are also willing to "have some skin in the game" on the cost, Fields said. If the resorts had "unlimited ability to put our season pass holders and our employees" on the gondola "and we pay for it, that alone could be in the neighborhood of several million dollars a year."
That's one possibility, Fields said, "but we're exploring other options as well."
"We think that this process has gone on so long, we have an opportunity to make a generational fix to a historic problem," Fields said. "And now's the time."
Buses vs. gondola: The cases for and against
Watching the campaign for the gondola unfold, Rutledge said those who support the enhanced bus service option have felt mounting pressure to make their case.
"You have these forces and private interests that are funding lobbying efforts, that are funding private websites, videos, all this kind of stuff, right? To further advance their mission," Rutledge said. "And we felt like, 'Hey, you know, why is it there's no one stepping up (for buses?)'"
So Wasatch Backcountry Alliance started its own podcast series, "The Uptrack," to explore transportation solutions for Little Cottonwood Canyon. Rutledge said they landed on enhanced bus service as the most commonsense solution that would build off of a system that's already in place while addressing avalanche issues.
Rutledge noted Utah Transit Authority can't "really be an advocate. ... Their role isn't to go and sell buses."
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson this week spoke out against a gondola and said she favored the bus route. The gondola option isn't "flexible enough," the mayor told The Salt Lake Tribune's editorial board, and she noted people will have to be bused anyway to the gondola's base station.
"I question whether we need a public investment to support two ski resorts," Wilson told the Tribune. "... Might we be better off to just work with the Forest Service to put in some limits and accept that there's 10 days a year when the snow is really coming down, the risk is too high and we just close the resorts? That, to me, is a better alternative."
Asked for additional comment on Wednesday, Wilson's spokeswoman declined, saying the county's official response to UDOT's draft study wasn't finalized.
"The county is putting together an official response to the Little Cottonwood EIS. We will have that response before the end of the comment period," Chloe Morroni, Wilson's spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement.
"The materials to review include over 1,000 pages. We are diligently working through that voluminous amount of materials, but there was a reason UDOT extended the comment period from 45 days to 70," Morroni added. "We need to process the materials, engage with the public, and coordinate our internal position."
Wasatch Backcountry Alliance only wants "a good solution because we go up Little Cottonwood Canyon and we recreate," Rutledge said.
"We want something that's going to work and not be a disaster and make things worse," he said. Rutledge pointed to a now-abandoned gondola system near the north end of Moab, where it's sat idle since it was first installed in 2001. The endeavor failed and left its bones behind.
"The fear is once you build something like that, it's so massively expensive to remove it that it never goes away," Rutledge said. "You know, I don't want to be a fearmonger necessarily, but it's worth considering."
So, before spending over half a billion dollars to "tear up" Little Cottonwood Canyon for an "unproven" solution, Rutledge said Wasatch Backcountry Alliance would rather see efforts to "make the existing infrastructure we have in place today work."
Utah's bus system has "never been funded" to the levels it needs to succeed, Rutledge said, and that's led many to perceive it as a flawed solution. Plus, he said increased bus service could be implemented faster, while a gondola would take years to construct.
While Wasatch Backcountry Alliance supports the bus alternative, the group favored staying away from road widening. But if it's determined road widening would be necessary, the group supports doing so to make buses more successful "rather than adding more unnecessary and unsightly infrastructure to our beloved Little Cottonwood Canyon," according to the group's written position.
There's also the matter of impact. Wasatch Backcountry Alliance argues 250-foot gondola towers would have a negative visual impact on the canyon.
However, while UDOT in its environmental impact study determined the gondola would have more of a visual impact, it also concluded road widening for the bus service option would have more of a negative environmental impact on land and wildlife than the gondola towers. Rather than tearing up miles of road, the towers would require construction on smaller surface areas within the canyon.
Still, Wasatch Backcountry Alliance is concerned, Rutledge said, that all of these transportation options have the ability to deliver significantly more people into the canyon. If that capacity isn't managed, it will only create more crowding in the canyons, he said.
Rutledge also pointed out questions remain if Utah were to go with the gondola, including who will own and operate it and what would a ticket cost?
Asked about a possible price tag for a ticket to ride the gondola, McCandless said it's too early to say, but he said, "I know it's not going to be $36."
Gondola supporters argue riding in a cabin with spectacular views of the canyon would be way more appealing than sitting on a bus or sitting in traffic in a car.
"Do you know anybody who gets up in the morning and says, 'I can't wait to go ride the bus'?" McCandless said.
When he first heard of the gondola concept, Niederhauser admitted it sounded "silly."
"I did," he said. "But when I looked at it, it's the only solution that works because it's the only solution where we get people off that road."
Fields said the solution to a problem that has plagued the canyon for decades takes new thinking — not old.
"This is a big deal," he said. "And it needs to be done right. The way I look at it is buses are a Band-Aid, and we need the real fix in this canyon."
It's important to note that regardless of which option is picked, both the gondola and enhanced bus options anticipate a major change for Little Cottonwood Canyon: tolling. It will no longer be free to drive up the canyon.
The environmental impact study includes the cost of $5 million for tolling infrastructure for both options. Both would also come with funding to build two "mobility hubs" for additional parking, one at the gravel pit on Wasatch Boulevard, and one at 9400 S. Highland Drive, and funding for two snow sheds to mitigate avalanches on the road.
Here are the facts the Utah Department of Transportation's draft environmental impact study has listed for the gondola and for enhanced bus service. The agency is expected to narrow its recommendation to one option after taking more public comment, which was originally scheduled to close Aug. 9, but was extended to Sept. 3 as comments have poured in.
The La Caille gondola:
- Would cost $592 million in one-time capital costs, $7.6 million in annual winter operating costs and $3 million in the summer.
- Riders would park at either a 1,500-stall parking garage at the base of the La Caille lift station, a 600-stall mobility hub at the gravel pit on Wasatch Boulevard, or a 400-stall mobility hub at 9400 S. Highland Drive.
- If riders park at one of the two mobility hubs, they'll have to take a bus to get to the gondola station.
- Buses would depart from the mobility hubs every 10 minutes. The gondola's cabins would depart every two minutes, at 30 gondola cabins an hour. The cabins could hold about 35 people and be able to transport 1,050 people an hour.
- Not including parking, the lift line, and loading into the gondola, the ride would take 27 minutes to Snowbird or 37 minutes to Alta.
Download the whole fact sheet at lacaillegondola.pdf
Enhanced bus service with road widening:
- Would cost $510 million in one-time capital costs, plus $11 million in annual winter operating costs.
- Bus riders would park at one of the two mobility hubs, then take a bus directly to Snowbird or Alta.
- Buses would have priority lanes on Wasatch Boulevard, and Little Cottonwood Canyon would be widened for bus-only peak-period shoulder driving.
- Buses would depart every five minutes. Six buses an hour would drive to each resort from each mobility hub, totaling 24 buses an hour. The buses could carry about 42 people each and transport about 1,008 people per hour.
- Not including parking or loading into the bus, the ride would take about 20 minutes to Snowbird or 24 minutes to Alta in good weather.
Download the whole fact sheet at enhancedbusservice.pdf
Correction: In a previous version, the cost of the gondola in one instance was quoted as $529 million instead of $592 million.