Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Opinion: The Proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT, Gondola System is a $500 Million Bandaid


Illustration of the proposed gondola. Credit:

A week ago, the Utah Department of Transportation declared the proposed Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola system as its favorite solution for the tedious traffic that gridlocks canyon travelers every winter. Most of these powder-hungry skiers and snowboarders are traveling to Snowbird and Alta, where the gondola will drop off passengers who board at the to-be-constructed La Caille Base Station at the mouth of the canyon. The project is a massive undertaking; once said and done, the half-a-billion-dollar investment will result in one of the world's longest, most advanced gondola systems, spanning over eight miles from the entrance of the canyon to world-class ski areas Snowbird and Alta. Once the current 45-day public review period ends, construction of the project can begin and will likely take several years. Click here for the Final EIS Summary Fact Sheet.

"[The gondola] is the most reliable mode of public transit in variable weather conditions and best meets the reliability goal of the project's purpose, while taking into consideration environmental impacts, public input, and overall life-cycle cost in comparison to the other four alternatives." - UDOT

To get the gondola rolling, they'll need to build A.) a giant parking garage and tram loading facility at the base of the canyon, B.) a gondola system with giant lift towers running the length of the canyon, and C.) receiving ports at Alta and Snowbird. Once that happens people won't have to drive up the canyon to get to Alta and Snowbird. But what about those who still want to go up the canyon but not all the way to the resorts?

The local backcountry skier is not served by the gondola unless they want to start touring out of the town of Alta. Even so, they'll still likely have to pay to use the gondola to get there. But isn't the point of going backcountry, at least for some, to avoid all the resort happenings and get out into the mountains on your own accord—on your own dime? The White Pine Trailhead or any of LCC's classic backcountry trails that access its legendary, ski-to-the-highway terrain which consists of several thousand-foot runs of steep backcountry skiing all land before the gondola's two drop-off points. How is a gondola going to serve any backcountry user wanting to go to any one of those popular zones other than by giving them an eyesore when they're skiing down and see a giant metal lift tower poking out of the surrounding scenery? And how about the quiet of the canyon that actually makes it a 'canyon', and not another parcel of man's development?

Little Cottonwood Canyon is gorgeous in the summertime; it's a great spot to hike or sit around and reflect—a refuge from the hustle and bustle of a valley of over 1 million just a couple miles away from it. I frequent the canyon and its accompanying creek. I spend time there in the summer to get out of the city and be in nature, even though civilization still encompasses me on all sides. It's a nice spot that keeps a certain spirit of nature alive, even if I'm pretending Salt Lake City isn't only a few minutes' drive down the highway. But with gondola towers poking out of the earth and stabbing several hundred feet into the sky, there will be no more pretending.

And what of the climbing, hiking, and even backcountry skiing areas that will be permanently altered by man's intrusion to obtrusively float himself through the sky and mountains to the ski area, where he'll likely still be waiting in line on a powder day? Local climbing advocacy group Salt Lake Climbers says that the gondola will "involve the destruction and/or removal of irreplaceable and historic world-class climbing resources," and that the machinery only serves some user groups and only in the wintertime. These climbers argue that the gondola would degrade the canyon's top-shelf climbing areas. I am a climber who often climbs in LCC and I can resonate with this sentiment. Also, some backcountry ski runs—no, every backcountry ski run that ends with a shot of the highway—will be changed forever. Where once a cool vibe and sound of a breeze could be heard there will be a noisy, tumultuous gondola system.

This map shows the bouldering impacts of the Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola alternative. | Photo courtesy of

So, if the gondola decreases the time it takes to get to the mountain, then that means more skiing for everyone and less time waiting around, right? I'm not convinced. According to Gondola Works, a group started by Snowbird that is in strong support of the gondola, it would take an estimated 30 minutes to get passengers from the proposed La Caille Base Station to Snowbird, and then a few minutes more to Alta. But did they mention the lines that will accumulate at the base station, and how much of a mess traffic will be down there, in the part of town where people actually live? Say it takes 30 minutes to wait in line to board the gondola, another 30 minutes to ride it, and then now with the extreme efficiency of people being able to get to the ski areas there are—oh!—more, even longer lines at the ski area's ticket offices and lifts. These are concerns I've yet to see UDOT publicly address. Also, I'm curious to see what portion of the project's funding the primary benefactors Alta and Snowbird will contribute, along with the taxpayer, because a 2021 estimate for the gondola forecasted the project would cost roughly $592 million, if not more. Where (who) will that cash be coming from?

UDOT estimates the total capital and maintenance cost estimates for each project through 2053 to be $724 million for the eight-mile-long gondola. However, many critics are skeptical of this estimation and insist that it could actually end up costing much more. This is because the estimate was made prior to the current rate of inflation and didn’t factor in the rising cost of construction materials like steel and concrete. As history has shown, large, unique, and complex construction projects, like one in a tight canyon and pristine nature area such as Little Cottonwood, can easily run significantly over budget. When things like cost overruns, delays, inflation, or earthquake mitigation are factored in, the cost of either proposed option could run upwards of $1 billion or more—expenses that traditionally affect the state’s taxpayers directly. And, with an expensive project like this and resorts spending big money to create gondola car receiving ports, it wouldn't come as a shocker if daily lift tickets and season pass prices went up at Snowbird and Alta. I think I can speak on behalf of the local community as well as skiers and snowboarders everywhere that no one wants pass prices to increase.

The proposed eight-mile route for the LCC gondola. | Photo courtesy of

Yet, all of that doesn't even mention the most important question of all, one that's even more important than the impact such a project would have on its environment and revenue gain—the one that asks how long would this project would last before the gondola itself becomes inefficient due to the rapidly growing population of the Salt Lake Valley. Just how long would it take for UDOT to get thrown back to the drawing board and have to spend another few hundred million? One can't help but wonder how long exactly this gondola would keep traffic at bay. 20 years? 15? 10? Is it worth spending a potential billion dollars to haphazardly patch up an issue that will eventually reopen as another problematic and costly wound in ‘x’ amount of years? Why isn’t UDOT thinking way ahead—I’m talking 50, 75, or 100 years down the line? Wouldn’t it be better to scrap the gondola that really only blesses two businesses—Snowbird and Alta—and look at the bigger picture instead?

What if, say, all of the ski areas in the Wasatch were connected into one big resort as they do over in the Alps with their several mountain, 200+ lift ski areas, where you can park at one resort or town on one side of a mountain range, like Park City, and then take chairlifts or ski runs to another resort altogether, like Alta and Snowbird? Tres Vallées in France is a prime example. Even though lifts in the place of a gondola wouldn't look much better in terms of disrupting the mountain's natural landscape, at least you could actually ski everything it intrudes upon and have it be controlled for avalanches. Plus, how many new jobs would be created for ski patrol, lifties, lodge personnel, and so forth when creating a 'mega ski area'? This idea seems like it'd do better for the population as a whole because there is another canyon right across the ridge with the same sort of traffic issues as Little Cottonwood, after all. Big Cottonwood Canyon is no better on a powder day—what's being done for it?

Tres Vallees trail map. | Photo courtesy of

I'm no economist nor engineer—I write and I ski—and I love these canyons and these ski areas just as much as any of you do. These mountains are my home—my livelihood. They will probably be the home and livelihoods of my children and grandchildren. I want to see my lineage live and ski in a positive environment that actually supports them to do so—that is actually sustainable for them to do so, in the long term. So I ask you; Snowbird, Alta, UDOT, the average citizen who visits and skis in this canyon: are you really willing to fork up an unholy amount of capital and change the entire geo-scape of this canyon for a short-term benefit rather than refocus on a long term solution that would keep the canyon more suitable for longer?

Opinion: the gondola is a band-aid and will look bad—physically, and on our part for not crafting something better that takes more into consideration the people that would ultimately be left to deal with this big, clunky thing. 

A common winter scene of cars and busses in gridlock in Little Cottonwood Canyon during the winter. | Photo courtesy of

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