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SANDY — Utah transportation officials say they are close to announcing a decision regarding the future of Little Cottonwood Canyon but the decision may take a bit longer than some may have expected.
The Utah Department of Transportation originally estimated it would have released its final environmental impact statement and record of decision — either a gondola or an expanded roadway with a rapid bus system — by winter 2021-2022, which ends March 20. But the definition of the deadline could also come down to semantics when referring to winter.
When asked about where the project is at given the expected, UDOT spokesman John Gleason told KSL.com Friday that the department is still "optimistic" that it will have a decision to announce by the end of the ski season, which is generally in April. Ski Utah reports most resorts that have announced a closing date so far have dates in mid-April this year.
But a final decision might come after that, too.
"The primary focus is just to make sure it's a thorough process and we're carefully examining every issue," he said. "There's been a lot of people who have brought different ideas forward in the comment period ... but we're optimistic we'll be able to come to a decision soon."
So what's the potential holdup? It has to do with the unprecedented flood of responses the agency got after it released its draft environmental impact statement was released last June. The initial 70-day public comment period yielded over 13,400 comments, smashing any previous comment records. Project leaders previously said they believed there could be delays after the period ended in September.
Some of the comments — primarily concerns brought up from the climbing community — also led the department to make some adjustments to the draft statement, altering the language to put the Alpenbock Loop and Grit Mill trailhead, trails and climbing areas as a single section. It acknowledges that the two areas include 143 climbing boulders, 13 vertical routes, two trailheads and "numerous trails" within about 58 total acres of the canyon.
The section notes an extended road would remove seven climbing boulders and relocate less than 5% of the trails; however, it says it wouldn't impact noise in the traditional climbing season or verticle routes. The gondola option would impact close to 7.5 acres for various project pieces, including the poles needed for the gondola; one climbing boulder would be removed and 34 would be within the gondola cable spaces but not impact additional boulder access.
That resulted in an additional 30-day comment period which wrapped up on Jan. 10, prolonging the final decision process.
It's not just the sheer number of comments that UDOT has to read. In this case, the project produced a wide range of opinions. Groups materialized specifically for and against certain projects, and it was a major topic in the municipal elections for the communities closest to the mouth of the canyon, like Sandy and Cottonwood Heights. It was also the subject of a legislative resolution that ultimately went nowhere.
Climbing enthusiasts even released a short film earlier this year arguing the best option for the canyon is neither project.
"People are passionate about Little Cottonwood Canyon and we've seen that reflected in the comments and the feedback we've received," Gleason said. "There are opinions across the board on what should be done. That's what makes this process so great — we're able to hear from everyone that could be potentially affected by any potential solutions here."
Once a decision is announced, UDOT will shift its attention to the next process, which is figuring out how to secure funding. The two alternatives that the agency put forward last year both have costs exceeding $500 million.