SANDY, Utah — The Utah Department of Transportation is backing a gondola option to solve Little Cottonwood Canyon's transportation and congestion problems.
FOX 13 News first reported on the agency's decision on Wednesday morning.
"At the end of the day, the gondola proved to be the most reliable in terms of getting people up the safest," UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras said.
Following years of environmental impact study, UDOT recommended a gondola route that starts near La Caille, going up Little Cottonwood Canyon and stopping at Snowbird and Alta ski resorts. UDOT has said the project could cost more than a half-billion dollars.
"If you look at the capital cost, the gondola is more expensive than just the buses," Braceras told FOX 13 News. "But if you look over a 30 year life cycle period, gondola is actually a cheaper alternative."
The agency also recommended a "phased-in" approach, that relies on buses and increased transit options before any gondola would be built. With the final environmental impact statement being issued, UDOT now launches another 45-day public comment period.
"We want to hear, we want to listen and understand," Braceras said.
"I'm not happy that they have given preference to a gondola," Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said at a news conference on Wednesday. "But I'm very pleased that UDOT has been listening to me and the community."
Public comment has certainly been significant. UDOT showed FOX 13 News more than 14,000 comments that have been submitted on the project. Mayor Wilson, who opposes the gondola over cost and visual impact the giant towers would have on the canyon, urged people to speak out again.
"I have a call to action to the public. And that is please go to the UDOT website. If you share my concerns over cost and over impact to the canyon, file a report," the Democratic county mayor said. "Tell them what you’re concerned about. Maybe you’re not a canyon user but you don’t like the idea of a half billion investment in taxpayer money for a gondola that will only stop at the ski resorts."
That sentiment was echoed by Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski.
"The fight for protecting our natural resources will never end and I ask everyone to continue to engage on the EIS," she said in a statement. "Remember to plan your trips up the canyon in peak times and take public transit or carpool. This is the time to demonstrate that local people will bring the best solutions to solve our traffic problems without destroying the natural beauty of the canyon or emptying the public purse."
Max Roth talks below to a ski resort official who gives his thoughts on UDOT's gondola recommendation
Political opposition to the gondola project has been bipartisan. Salt Lake County Council Chair Laurie Stringham, a Republican, said she was disappointed with UDOT's decision.
"The gondola is an excellent tourist attraction," she told FOX 13 News. "But really it’s not solving the problems we’ve talked about up in the canyons."
Chair Stringham said UDOT did not consider other options that could be more environmentally friendly, like a tunnel or trains going up the canyon.
While Little Cottonwood Canyon is a state road and on U.S. Forest Service land, everything around it is unincorporated Salt Lake County. The county could throw up roadblocks on the gondola project.
"There are some things the county can do and I know the mayor’s looking at that. I know the council is looking at that. There’s discussions coming up," Chair Strigham said.
The U.S. Forest Service told FOX 13 News it would be involved with its own environmental study, should the gondola project need to access land on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Lance Kovel, the project supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service, said they contributed data to UDOT's study, but has taken no formal position on it.
"The Forest Service will be reviewing the public comments collected by UDOT in the next 45 day public comment period and we will consider those comments, if and when the Forest Service issues a decision," Kovel said.
The Utah State Legislature would ultimately be asked to commit taxpayer money for the gondola project, as well as any other transit options. On Utah's Capitol Hill, political leaders were mixed on the idea.
"If we’re going to have taxpayer funded transportation projects, they need to benefit all county residents. Not just ski resorts," said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, whose House district is adjacent to Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Rep. Harrison, who is running for a seat on the Salt Lake County Council, said she would like to see UDOT reconsider the decision.
Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, has Little Cottonwood Canyon in his district. He said he was not taking a position for or against a gondola. He said the state is years away from a final solution and a lot can change. They can also examine other methods first in the phased-in approach, including transit and toll roads (lawmakers passed a bill a few years ago allowing toll roads in the canyons).
"I'm honestly indifferent on this. I like to get public input, public support," Sen. Cullimore said of his thoughts on a gondola. "My commitment has been when and if this comes to the legislature for funding, which again is several years away, I want whatever the solution is to have broad buy-in before I support."
Governor Spencer Cox said he supports UDOT's recommendation.
"We support the recommendations of the final EIS, which include a gondola and proposed phasing with enhanced bus service and other solutions," he said in a statement. "These measures will address current and future needs in the canyon while preserving the beautiful Wasatch Mountains for future generations of Utahns."