SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Department of Transportation plans to institute a toll on the road going up Little Cottonwood Canyon to go along with a controversial gondola project.
In a meeting with Utah State Senate Democrats on Wednesday, UDOT officials outlined some of their plans as they faced questions from members of the minority caucus who said they have already heard a lot from their constituents. UDOT said its goal is to reduce traffic in the canyon by 30%, something it believes the gondola can do with a 2,500 stall parking structure at the base of the canyon. It also plans to rely on transit and tolling to push people to it.
"If the mission is to create reliability, sustainability, mobility, you’ve solved the last ten miles. But you haven’t solved the first ten miles," Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said, pointing out that traffic congestion would just move into neighborhoods in her district.
"We are proposing to widen Wasatch Boulevard in the southbound direction for commuter traffic. That's really the driver but ski traffic will also benefit from this," responded Josh Van Jura, the project's manager. "The other part is to work with UTA to accommodate inbound buses."
UDOT announced it prefers a gondola option to deal with traffic and congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon, but because of the cost associated with it — at least a half-billion dollars — they will try a "phased in" approach relying on other forms of mass transit. UDOT is in the midst of a public comment period on the gondola option that ends in mid-October.
Sen. Riebe pointed to a number of cities around Little Cottonwood Canyon that oppose the project and accused the ski resorts in the canyon of whipping up public comment in favor of the gondola from visitors across the country. Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, asked UDOT if they planned to toll?
"We are proposing a variable toll to get that 30% transition to transit," Van Jura said.
The Utah State Legislature approved tolling several years ago, with an eye toward addressing transit in the Cottonwood canyons.
Sen. Kitchen said he had concerns about the project cost, using tax dollars, implementing a toll and demanding a lift ticket on a gondola ride “when they’re paying for this project.” Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, had concerns about water quality and whether this was another way of rebooting "Ski Link," a controversial plan to link ski resorts together with trams.
UDOT officials insisted the project would not harm water quality and the gondola was focused on Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, remarked there was once resistance to TRAX when it was put in the Salt Lake Valley.
"It did relieve an awful lot of traffic into downtown," he said.
Sen. Riebe replied: "But TRAX was already on the road. That's the difference with the towers [for the gondola going into the canyon]."