Look, up there in the sky. It’s not a bird. It’s not an airplane. It’s a gondola towering over the road to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) announced its long-awaited traffic mitigation decision regarding the future of the famous powder road, SR-210 to Alta and Snowbird. The gondola. Skier traffic problems have become increasingly acute in recent winters, and a contentious debate surrounding potential solutions is ongoing. In the end, the $550 million gondola proposal won out over alternative bus transit solutions.
The gondola will depart from La Caille station at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) with stops at Snowbird and Alta. The eight-mile gondola ride will be the longest in the world, taking skiers and snowboarders from across the valley straight to The Greatest Snow On Earth™. It sounds peachy, but the ethics and effectiveness aren’t as clear cut as they seem, and the 45-day public comment period following UDOT’s decision is about to get spicy.
Let’s start with the obvious ethical dilemma here: taxpayer funds being used to build and operate a gondola that will primarily benefit two private entities, Snowbird and Alta. The gondola is not a feasible public transportation solution for anyone looking to access LCC public lands from any trailhead other than those adjacent to the resort bases. This is going to make a lot of people gross, especially if they are forced to pay a toll to fund the project. That sentiment had been echoed by prominent gondola opponents, including Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski.
Other concerns surround whether the gondola will eventually alleviate traffic effectively. Gondola drivers should always head to the base of the LCC where congestion, especially when coupled with that of nearby Big Cottonwood Canyon, can already slow drivers to a stop. A mass transit solution with hubs throughout the Salt Lake Valley would have done much more to reduce traffic volume in neighborhoods near the base of the canyons. Also, it has not yet been demonstrated that there will be enough parking spaces for the number of skiers and snowboarders vying to ride the gondola in the first place.
UDOT will now conduct a 45-day public comment period, until October 17 before finalizing its decision this winter. At this point, the ultimate fate of the project will rest with the Utah Legislature, which will need to approve funding for the project. Exactly where they will raise the more than half a billion dollars for the projects remains to be seen, but substantial public funding is all but assured. In the meantime, UDOT will undertake efforts to support the gondola and alleviate traffic, including building mobility hubs, improving bus service, and constructing snow shelters.
Despite the environmental and ethical concerns, in the end it always seemed like it would be the gondola. Carl Fisher of Save Our Canyons suggested as much when we previously reported on the matter, saying last fall: “The bus alternative as proposed seems to be just there to create interference and pave the way for gondola. The gondola proposals have been very popular politically, and this influences how UDOT approaches the issue. Looks like he was right.