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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah transportation officials announced Wednesday that they are moving forward with a plan to build a gondola to handle growing traffic concerns in Little Cottonwood Canyon, though they admit it may take "years" for a final project to come together.
The Utah Department of Transportation selected "Gondola B" for its Little Cottonwood Canyon Final Environmental Impact Statement, over a plan to widen the road and use rapid bus transit. The massive project calls for a large base with 2,500 parking spaces about three-quarters of a mile northwest of the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, by the restaurant La Caille in Sandy, with a service that runs every two minutes, in a cabin that can hold up to 35 people.
Enhanced bus service in the canyon will also be included, which will likely begin before a gondola is built. The impact statement released Wednesday will be up for public comment through Oct. 17 before a record of the decision is finalized.
"We know how important this study is to so many canyon users, as the amount of public participation and comments we've received far surpasses any previous environmental study in UDOT's history," UDOT project manager Josh Van Jura said in a statement.
"We relied on the (environmental impact study) process of in-depth technical analysis and environmental assessment, along with agency and public input, to identify Gondola B as the preferred alternative in the Final Economic Impact Statement."
But in a video explaining the agency's decision, Van Jura added that it may take "years" for UDOT to secure state, federal and private funding needed to complete the estimated $550 million cost of the project. The estimate includes other components of piecing together the project, such as tolling infrastructure, transit parking, new snow sheds, and widening Wasatch Boulevard.
The gondola is also estimated to produce $4 million in annual wintertime operation and maintenance costs and an additional $3 million if the gondola also runs during the summer months.
"While initial construction cost is the third-highest, the overall 30-year lifecycle cost would be lowest of all the alternatives," he said.
Because of this estimated long process, Van Jura explained UDOT will look to construct the project in phases beginning with enhanced bus service with no widening of the road in the canyon. It is also looking into tolling or restrictions that prohibit single-occupancy vehicles from driving up the canyon during the busiest times in this early phase.
Dave Fields, the president and general manager of Snowbird Resort, and a representative of the coalition Gondola Works, applauded UDOT's decision.
"I think it's a good day for the future of the Salt Lake Valley, for people who like to recreate in these mountains that won't be forced into their vehicles," he said, appearing on KSL NewsRadio's "Dave and Dujanovic." "We're never felt that a vehicle-based solution to this canyon is the right idea, and we really applaud UDOT for taking their time during this exhaustive process ... and coming up with a solution that is safe and reliable, and it's clean."
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, on the other hand, said county leaders are looking into options that the county can do that may overturn the decision. She pointed out that members of the county council have questioned the need for the project and the cost to the taxpayers. At the same time, she's concerned that the development will diminish the canyon's beauty.
"We should preserve what we have, especially in the Little Cottonwood Canyon and Big Cottonwood Canyon," she said in reaction to UDOT's decision. "This isn't just about the emotions some of us have around this issue. This is about bottom line cost and it's also about investing in something that will work. And I have as many concerns about the limitations of a gondola."
Wednesday's decision comes about two years after the agency began looking into transportation options in the canyon. Utah transportation officials estimate that by 2050 it will take 80 to 85 minutes to travel up and down the canyon during peak travel days if no changes are made to the road. Van Jura says that about 50 of these types of days are expected every year by 2050, and that number will grow as Utah's population grows.
It's why Utah transportation officials began, in the summer of 2020, looking into options to cut down about 30% of the vehicles on the road and that estimated travel wait. The agency eyed 124 different concepts and five action alternatives, including a widened road, increased bus service, a gondola and even light rail as possible options.
Then, in June 2021, Van Jura announced that UDOT had narrowed the field down to a gondola or a widened road with enhanced bus service. Wednesday's decision comes after UDOT received over 14,000 public comments, the most of any UDOT project. The number of comments actually delayed the decision, which was originally expected earlier this year.
These comments ranged all over the place, from the support for each alternative to calls to scrap the entire project. But in the end, Van Jura said UDOT decided on the gondola because it can operate independently from issues with state Route 210, such as adverse weather, crashes, slide-offs and slow-moving traffic. It also estimates it can remove 4,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year by taking vehicles off the road.
It is estimated to take 55 minutes to run from the base near the mouth of the canyon to a terminus in Alta, about 25 to 30 minutes quicker than the projected time to drive up the canyon in 2050. The enhanced bus service under the plan is expected to reach Alta in 43 minutes.
"Construction of the gondola and the associated towers will be a visual change to canyon users but the impacts to resources such as the watershed, air quality, noise and wildlife, as well as many other impacts were thoroughly analyzed and considered," Van Jura said.
The gondola project has been backed by the organization Gondola Works, which is a coalition of Utah ski resorts, developers and clean air groups. It has ties to former state and local leaders like former Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and former Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless, who founded CW Management, a company that owns the land where the base would be located.
Field says he's still reviewing UDOT's decision, so he's not entirely sure what the timeline will be to move the gondola construction phase. But he believes it's a solution to many of the canyon's transportation problems.
"I think what people can celebrate is that this is an innovative transportation solution that's being used around the world — and it works," he said. "I think it's something that everyone will be proud of when it's in and they're using it."
However, not everyone is convinced that the project will be as beneficial as UDOT says.
Wilson questioned the number of days that traffic is a concern in the canyon. She believes it's only about 15 to 20 days out of the year, representing only about 5% of the year. Even 50 days is only about 14% of the year. In addition, she argues a gondola isn't as "flexible" to growing environmental risks as a bus system is, and may only push the traffic concerns to the mouth of the canyon.
The county mayor added that she does appreciate that the enhanced bus service will begin ahead of the gondola; however, she said she would prefer if UDOT invested more in enhanced electric bus service, measures that promote more carpooling, and technology that better warns of hazards that may dissuade skiers from traveling on a certain day.
Now is the time for residents, environmental groups, ski resorts, developers and elected officials to work together to deliver real progress to manage user demand for the canyon we all love and want to protect.
–Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski
"We have been chasing a train or a gondola for as long as I've been in public life. What we have not done is recognize and invest in advanced technology. Wouldn't it be great to know that we can actually dial in and see, in real time, where the congestion is and make a decision whether we decide to go skiing on that given day?" she said.
Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski called the decision a "mixed bag" in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, explaining that she does not support the gondola but said the enhanced bus service in the canyon in the first phase is "prudent."
"This will allow time to implement sensible, cost-effective solutions like enhanced buses, mobility hubs, parking improvements and tolling before incurring massive public cost to build out infrastructure if other strategies work well," her statement reads, in part. "Now is the time for residents, environmental groups, ski resorts, developers and elected officials to work together to deliver real progress to manage user demand for the canyon we all love and want to protect."
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also weighed in because Utah's capital city has owned water rights in Little Cottonwood Canyon for well over a century, which is used to supply drinking water for over 360,000 Salt Lake City residents and other communities in the county.
She said the city is "grateful" for UDOT's extensive process and, like Zoltanski, that the phased approach will offer more time to review the plan. That's something that is currently happening with the environmental impact statement released on Wednesday.
"I remain very concerned about the watershed and environmental impacts of a gondola system in Little Cottonwood Canyon," Mendenhall said, in a statement. "The city's chief concern is that the gondola will create significant risk to the canyon watershed through its construction and operations, as well as by inducing substantial additional visitation and development pressures to the watershed."
The decision comes about two months after two dozen government representatives and environmental advocates voiced displeasure with the possibility of a gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon, arguing it is unnecessary unwanted and a "gimmick" that won't solve transportation concerns.
The Deseret News also conducted a poll in late 2021, which found only about 20% of respondents surveyed supported the gondola option, compared to 60% who preferred the enhanced bus service option.
The next steps
Meanwhile, the 45-day public comment period is now underway on the documents released Wednesday.
People can submit their comments at UDOT's project website, email littlecottonwoodEIS@utah.gov, leave a voicemail at 801-200-3465, or mail their comments to Little Cottonwood Canyon EIS c/o HDR / 2825 E. Cottonwood Parkway, Suite 200 / Cottonwood Heights, UT 84121.
The final record of decision, which will kickstart the funding process, is expected either at the end of the year or early next year.
Contributing: Debbie Dujanovic, KSL NewsRadio