Little Cottonwood Canyon is the home of some of the best skiing on the planet and each winter it attracts thousands of tourists from around the world. Those skiers and riders boost the local economy and are vital to supporting local businesses within the region. However, all those skiers and riders also bring something with them to the area which no one wants and that is traffic congestion. For years, Utah has been working to formulate a plan which would mitigate the huge traffic problems in the Little Cottonwood Canyon area.
On July 12th, the Utah Department of Transportation’s (UDOT) proposal to solve the traffic congestion in the Little Cottonwood Canyon was approved. The Gondola Alternative B was the plan that was chosen and consists of three phases that will be spaced out in 10-year increments. The first phase is funded already, however, Phase Two and Phase Three are still not funded at this time.
Phase One of the project would consist of increasing the number of buses, creating a mobility hub, building of resort bus stops, and tolling. The timeline for the rollout of Phase One of the project is still not set in stone but according to UDOT officials, the fall of 2025 is their goal. Josh Van Jura is the project manager for the gondola project and he said there is no official decision on how many buses will be utilized in Phase One, but he did say approximately 30-35 buses. Those buses would run every 10-15 minutes and there would be a drop-off for skiers at the resorts, according to Van Jura. There will also be the construction of a mobility hub which will consist of 1,500 parking spaces, said Van Jura.
The goal of Phase One is to eliminate people from driving their own vehicles on S.R. 210, which is the main road through Little Cottonwood Canyon. UDOT would like people to choose public transportation instead of driving their own vehicles which would help with the traffic congestion. Jura said that there are about 50 days a year where they see the most congestion and those are usually on peak times of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 7-10 am. The price for the toll road will be variably priced between $25-30 per vehicle and is intended to “eliminate public vehicles by 30%,” according to Jura.
Phase Two of the project would be to improve the quality of the bus stations in the canyon, widen the road, construct snow sheds, and improve trailhead parking. This phase is still not funded at this time and its goal would be to improve transportation times through the canyon. According to Van Jura, the average time to get through the canyon to the resorts is approximately 20 minutes, however, during peak times that time can sometimes reach 80 minutes, which is what UDOT is trying to eliminate.
Phase Three of the project would consist of the construction of the gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon which has caused much debate. The gondola would be eight miles long, making it the longest in the world, and it is estimated to cost $550 million dollars, which is not funded at this time. Each gondola would hold 32 people, arrive at the Alta Ski Area every two minutes, and take 37 minutes total from the base station to Alta.
The opponents of the gondola raise concerns over costs, environmental issues, and also the taking away of the natural beauty of the canyon itself. There were approximately 50,000 public comments concerning the gondola project and Van Jura said he read them all. He also stated that you have to look at the purpose and need, the environment, mobility regarding reliability and safety, and the overall cost of the project.
“I can’t disagree that there will be a visual change to the canyon but if you look at the environmental impacts together, purpose and need, life-cycle costs, the gondola pulls ahead,” said Van Jura.
There are always debates from both sides when a project of the magnitude is proposed which almost always revolves around costs and the environment. The gondola project can be compared to other major projects throughout the country like professional sports stadiums which are usually funded by both private and government entities. Phase Two and Phase Three would be funded in a similar manner by receiving funds from state from federal, public, and private partnerships, according to Van Jura.
In the most recent statement on the project, Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City Mayor said,
“Little Cottonwood Canyon is a precious, limited resource and is home to a vital part of the Salt Lake City watershed that serves more than 360,000 people. It’s disheartening to know the record of decision is willing to gamble with this resource. I’m still deeply concerned about the significant risk the gondola poses with its construction, operations, and its potential to induce visitation and development. We hold hope that through the phased implementation of other traffic congestion interventions, UDOT might be able to achieve the same goal through less impactful measures.”
This project is going to take some time to complete and there will be assessments done along the way to see if Phase One and Phase Two are mitigating traffic congestion as planned. The actual gondola project is not planned to get started until 2042-2050, according to Van Jura. This will allow time for UDOT officials to see if the enhanced busing system, widening of the roads, and tolls are improving traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon. It is also important that Phase Two and Phase Three are not funded yet, which also allows more time for alternative plans or options for the gondola project.