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UDOT picks gondola and transit option for Little Cottonwood Canyon

Posted at 9:30 AM, Jul 12, 2023

TAYLORSVILLE, Utah — After a lengthy public comment period, the Utah Department of Transportation said it will proceed with a gondola proposal to handle Little Cottonwood Canyon traffic.

It is only after pursuing a transit option first, including enhanced bus service, to deal with congestion in one of Salt Lake County's most popular recreation areas.

"That is improved bus service, a mobility hub at the gravel pit, bus stops at the ski resorts and tolling infrastructure," said Josh Van Jura, who has overseen the proposal for UDOT.

FOX 13 News was the first to report on the final decision by the agency on Wednesday morning.

The gondola remains an option, and the proposal still builds a 2,500 stall parking terrace at the base of the canyon but that may be years off and is contingent upon funding from the Utah State Legislature and other sources. The gondola has not been funded by the legislature, but $150 million was funded by lawmakers for mass transit in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon.

"We do anticipate that the $150 million will get us 10 to 15 minute bus service in both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. We’re going to start working on that literally tomorrow," he told FOX 13 News.

Van Jura defended the gondola as a viable long-term solution.

"The gondola brings a reliability component the bus service does not. That because it operates in separate alignment. It’s not subject to slow moving vehicles, slide-offs and crashes and all those things that make it difficult to get to the resorts," he said.

The gondola and enhanced transit options was UDOT's preferred plan all along. Now that a "record of decision" has been made, the agency can start to pursue the plan in earnest. It can also trigger litigation from opponents of the plan, including conservation groups and upset neighbors. They have complained the proposal is expensive (costing over $500 million) and would be visual pollution in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Politically speaking, "Gondola Option B" has been opposed by Republicans and Democrats alike, from Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and members of the county council, to Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski. It has supporters on Utah's Capitol Hill, including Governor Spencer Cox. The Wasatch Front Regional Council, made up of representatives from local governments, voted to support it. More than 50,000 people weighed in during the public comment period.

"For those of us that oppose the gondola, today is not a day of doom and gloom," Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said at a news conference Wednesday. "It’s important to note the record of decision issued by UDOT includes a phased approach."

Mayor Wilson said she supports UDOT's decision to pursue enhanced bus service and tolling. She thanked people for speaking up, crediting them for helping to make the gondola a lower priority.

"If I were a state legislator and I saw the vast number of comments opposed, I would give pause before I voted for appropriations that advance a gondola," she said.

One lawmaker told FOX 13 News he is supportive of the gondola and would seek funding to make it happen.

"The current status quo is really unacceptable," Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, said of the traffic problems in the canyon. "There’s safety issues with all the avalanches, there's traffic and parking congestion. We really need a solution up there. The gondola is zero emissions, can move people up the canyon safely. I think it’s a fantastic solution."

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, whose district includes Little Cottonwood Canyon, said he supports the phased approach. He said he would only support funding any measures with "broad support."

"I am hopeful this will provide much-needed relief to traffic congestion while providing UDOT with additional time to make informed decisions about what is necessary for possible subsequent phases. I appreciate everyone who took the time to weigh in on this matter, including those for and against the gondola," he said in a statement to FOX 13 News. "I hear constituents who raised safety, traffic and environmental concerns. I also heard and understood those concerned with the aesthetics of the canyon and what it means for those who live there. I'm encouraged by UDOT's decision to go with this phased approach because it will enable them to assess how this initial solution addresses traffic, safety and environmental concerns while understanding the viability of the gondola if and when that time comes."

Ski resorts in Little Cottonwood Canyon have expressed support for the gondola option as they would benefit from the stops at Snowbird and Alta.

"Ski Utah is grateful for UDOT’s diligence in a thorough process to address the traffic problems that have plagued Little Cottonwood Canyon for decades. Today marks an important milestone towards a day when reliable, efficient, safe and clean transportation is available to a wide variety of canyon users," said Nathan Rafferty, Ski Utah's president and CEO.