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Chances are nobody will be happy with UDOT’s traffic decision on Little Cottonwood Canyon

A render from the Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Statement of what a gondola would look like from the Quarry Trailhead.
Utah Department of Transportation
A render from the Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Statement of what a gondola would look like from the Quarry Trailhead.

As a final decision looms on what could be a massive, multi-hundred million dollar project to address traffic on one of the state’s major ski roads, a group of local government officials and community leaders are urging the Utah Department of Transportation to abandon its plans in favor of “common sense” solutions.

Following a multi-year process, the agency settled on two options it says will best improve traffic safety, reliability and speed in Little Cottonwood Canyon — constructing a gondola from the base of the canyon to the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts or widening the road for increased bus service.

Opponents say both choices could lead to devastating, irreversible damage to one of the state’s most beloved canyons.

“There's so many things we can do now that we have not done,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. ”We do need to invest, but we do not need to invest a half a billion dollars in a horribly ugly solution that's going to impact our wilderness, our sense of place and our enjoyment.”

Wilson was joined by nearly a dozen state and local officials Wednesday, as well as community groups like the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and Latino Outdoors, arguing for smaller steps to be taken first. At a press conference, they said they’d like to see things like a toll imposed on drivers, clearer traffic and parking monitoring as well as improving existing bus service.

Few transportation plans have been as hotly debated as the proposals to address traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Over a multi-year process, the Utah Department of Transportation has received more public feedback on this plan than any other. It’s also published close to 1,700 pages detailing the various options and their projected environmental impacts.

Representatives for the two ski resorts, the ski advocacy group Ski Utah and a local real estate company are hoping UDOT selects the gondola. They formed a group called Gondola Works, which argues it’s the safest, most reliable option for getting the majority of winter road users up the mountain. They say it could also be used year-round, which UDOT officials confirmed is possible but has not been considered as part of its analysis so far.

Dave Fields, manager of Snowbird, said if the gondola is selected, the resort is willing to subsidize fares for season pass holders and employees and promises to donate the private land it owns outside its ski area to a conservation easement.

“That's 1,100 acres we own outside the ski area,” he said. “So we have a lot of skin in this game, but we want to see a solution that is proven around the world to move people into complicated terrain like Little Cottonwood Canyon in a safe and efficient and clean way.”

Skeptics of the plan say that in pushing for the gondola, however, the group is also promoting misinformation. In a promotional video, Gondola Works claims that choosing their option represents a “commitment” to clean energy.

“To resolve the congestion of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utahns have two options,” the video states. “Transition to clean energy or ride the bus.”

In reality, UDOT’s air quality projections found the gondola would have a slightly larger total emissions footprint than the bus alternative. It would generate less pollution in the canyon itself, but still rely on the state’s primary energy sources, coal and natural gas, according to project manager Josh Van Jura.

Road widening, the analysis found, would impact more land by acreage and climbing areas, as well as require more salt to melt snow. That could potentially affect nearby water sources. Both options would cost upwards of $500 million in construction costs alone.

While Van Jura said the agency is still working towards a final decision, options beyond its two preferences are still on the table. Given the various considerations and interests, he said people will undoubtedly disagree as to which will be the best choice for the state.

“Different people put different levels of significance on the different chapters [of the environmental review] and their relative importance to their personal values and quality of life,” Van Jura said. “It's important to note that the preferred alternative is not going to be selected based on the amount of positive or negative support it receives.”

Public input and feedback from special interest groups have helped to refine the evaluation process, he said, but ultimately the final decision is up to UDOT. The agency will choose the option it determines best meets the goals of the project — speed, safety and reliability with the fewest environmental costs.

It’s expected to make its choice later this summer.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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