Cost of Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT, Gondola Continues to Rise

Tyler Hatch | | Industry NewsIndustry News
Mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT
The mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT. / Photo Credit: Utah Open Lands

Last Wednesday, July 12, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) announced they would be moving forward with building a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon in an attempt to alleviate traffic congestion in the canyon. Last August, UDOT recognized a gondola as the best solution among a few options, the runner-up being improved bus systems, for alleviating traffic in the canyon. UDOT then moved into a “public comment” phase where locals and taxpayers were encouraged to share their opinions on the construction of a proposed eight-mile gondola. After reviewing the comments, UDOT released its announcement that the gondola was its final decision.

Before construction of the gondola will even begin, there are multiple phases UDOT plans to establish to improve traffic flow in the canyon before the gondola is ready, which were implemented in response to public comments opposing the construction of the project. Phase one is anticipated to be operational by the fall of 2025 and will include improved bus services and the introduction of tolling. Phase two will widen the road that spans Little Cottonwood Canyon, alongside other minor changes. Finally, phase three will see the construction of the gondola and a base station capable of accommodating 2,500 cars. After the gondola is operational, bus service in the canyon will be discontinued.

Rendering of Little Cottonwood Gondola
Rendering of Little Cottonwood Gondola / Photo Credit: UDOT

Earlier in the year, Utah state legislature passed Senate Bill Two, which set aside $150 million for phase one, which means that phase one is currently the only step of the long gondola building process with funding. Original estimates for the total cost of the project last August were approximated at $550 million with annual operations around $4 million. However, since the price tag was originally estimated, the approximated total cost has grown by $178 million, to $728 million, with the annual operating cost remaining less affected, at $4.4 million.

As capital cost estimates rise, it raises concerns about how gondola ticket prices will reflect the pricey construction of the project. UDOT has yet to announce a ticket price for riders and it likely won’t be anytime soon, as selecting a ticket price isn’t as easy as it sounds. The ticket price must be lower than road tolls to encourage riders to utilize the gondola as their primary canyon transportation, otherwise we’re back to square one. However, the ticket price must also be high enough to keep the lights on and begin to recoup the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on the massive project.

Rendering of Gondola Tower Near Snowbird, UT
Rendering of Gondola Tower Near Snowbird, UT / Photo Credit: UDOT

Craig Heimark, the volunteer treasurer of the town of Alta has been using UDOT figures and cost estimates to calculate what cost-per-rider may be. Assuming gondolas are full going up in the mornings, and full going down in the afternoons, Heimark’s lowest possible estimate would cost UDOT $90 per rider and according to his numbers, it could be as high as $200 per rider. It should also be noted that Heimark’s data is based upon the original construction price estimates released last August, but again, this is all speculation as UDOT has yet to speak on ticket prices.

While $90-$200 per rider sounds extremely expensive, most public transits cost more to operate than the actual fare collected off of each passenger. In 2022, Utah Transit Authority (UTA) recorded 10% of their costs being covered by rider fares and the rest of their expenses are covered almost entirely by taxpayers. So, if we average the price-per-rider estimates from Heimark, we get an average cost of $145 per rider. Assuming UDOT applies similar principles as UTA does and the actual fare is only 10% the price of what it costs UDOT to move riders up the canyon, we get an estimated fare of $14.50 per rider, while state taxes will cover the rest of the fare.

The future of the project is quite foggy and still filled with lots of speculation as costs continue to rise and the plan grows more complex. Phase one is still currently the only part of the project with funding, but now that the project has officially been approved by UDOT, the project is anticipated to be eligible for funding during the 2024 state legislative session. Execution and completion of the project are entirely dependent on whether state legislators decide to allocate the appropriate funds, so much of the project’s details have yet to be finalized.

Rendering of Little Cottonwood Gondola
Rendering of Little Cottonwood Gondola / Photo Credit: Gondola Works

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