This week the Utah Department of Transportation took a step toward its goal of reducing congestion on State Route 210, which provides Salt Lake City residents access to both Alta and Snowbird resorts via Little Cottonwood Canyon. UDOT’s solution: The world’s longest gondola.
The proposed gondola will sit at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon and carry passengers to stations located at the base areas for both resorts, approximately eight miles up the canyon. By contrast, New Mexico’s Sandia Peak Tramway is 2.48 miles in length, and the Peak2peak Gondola at Whistler, Canada is 1.7 miles long. The Zlatibor Gold gondola in Serbia is 5.59 miles in length.
Each cabin of the proposed Utah gondola would carry 32 passengers and arrive every two minutes. A 2,500-car lot will provide parking at the base of the canyon. The ride will take 30 minutes to Snowbird, and 36 to Alta. UDOT hopes that the gondola will alleviate traffic in the canyon.
The gondola was one of several solutions that UDOT was considering, alongside an uptick in busses, a train, and the widening of the highway. The gondola won. “It’s 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 said in a press release.
The gondola initiative is not yet set in stone. The project will enter a public review phase on September 2, ending on October 17. Residents are encouraged to voice their opinions of the project here.
UDOT plans to make its final decision sometime this winter, as this week’s announcement only indicates that the gondola is the agency’s preferred choice.
Via a press release, the Department noted that “it may take years to secure federal, state and/or private funding for full implementation [of the gondola].” In the meantime, UDOT intend to bolster bus access to reduce traffic. Tolling on State Route 210 is another solution under consideration.
The announcement comes after years of deliberation. In 2017, Utah’s state legislature passed Highway General Obligation Bonds Authorization, a bill that contained additional funding for state transportation projects. The Commission in charge of deploying the bill identified ski traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon as an area of high priority. In 2018, UDOT began investigating the potential environmental impacts of transportation improvement alternatives. Four years later, the Department arrived at its current gondola-oriented opinion.
The Highway General Obligation Bonds Authorization commission isn’t alone in noticing Little Cottonwood Canyon’s seasonal gridlock. If you ask any SLC resident about the Canyon’s traffic situation, they’ll likely tell you the same story.
One skier, who chose to remain anonymous, grew up skiing Alta by commuting from SLC. He saw firsthand as Little Cottonwood Canyon’s two-lane highway failed to keep up with increasing skier demand, succumbing to frequent traffic jams, particularly on busy weekends.
The skier estimates that the drive to Alta, which once took roughly 25 minutes from his home in Cottonwood Heights, can now take up to two hours when the snow starts to stack up. His anecdotal experience aligns with the data—Utah had a record year for ski-resort visitation this past season. He feel that the gondola presents the most efficient solution.
“There’s no going back to Alta in 2000,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that the demand [for skiing] is so high now, and we don’t have the infrastructure to support it.”
The gondola isn’t without controversy. Several local organizations, including the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance (WBA), oppose the proposal. In May of 2022, the WBA ran an article entitled “Gondola Misinformation: WBA Clears the Air With Facts.” The article denies the veracity of many of the proposal’s supposed benefits, including the reduction of carbon emissions.
Rock climbers are also irked by the plan, because the gondola could impact popular crags. In a statement on Instagram, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance said: “The fight is not over!” and asked members to write lawmakers.
Brad Rutledge, WBA board member and co-founder, stands with his organization in viewing the gondola as a potential misstep. He believes that the gondola will be less convenient than driving, carpooling, or taking the bus. “It’s hard for me to imagine from a convenience standpoint people doing it [riding the gondola],” he said. If the gondola proves to be an undesirable option for skiers, Rutledge worries that the project will be an enormous waste.
Another of Rutledge’s critiques revolves around the visual impact of the gondola. “When you look around, you truly feel solitude,” he says, citing the experience of backcountry skiing in the Little Cottonwood Canyon area. In his eyes, the presence of a large artificial structure would damage one of the Canyon’s greatest resources, its natural beauty.
A 2021 poll from Deseret News indicates that Rutledge and the WBA’s position isn’t isolated. The poll stated that roughly 60 percent of SLC residents oppose the installation of a gondola, preferring an improved bus system instead. Another 20 percent of respondents favored the gondola, and the remaining 20 percent opted for “another option” or no change.
Many local skiers seem to agree on one thing: The traffic problem in Little Cottonwood Canyon needs to be addressed. For Rutledge and the WBA, that looks like an increased emphasis on community carpooling and bussing initiatives. Gondola proponents see it differently, hoping the Swiss approach could distribute skiers more evenly throughout the canyon.