News Search

Push to The Latest: No

SAM Magazine—Salt Lake City, Utah, June 5, 2023—The Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC) has voted to approve a long-term regional transportation plan from the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) that includes the widely-debated Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola. HN CottonwoodImage credit: Gondola Works

When asked how significant a step it was for the $1.14 billion gondola project to gain the council’s approval, Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, told SAM, “It seemed to me like it was more of a formality, I think the council’s hands were pretty much tied.”

According to those close to the project, the council was faced with either having to approve the plan in its entirety, or risk losing projects it supports that are provisioned for in the first two phases of the plan. Some of that work includes increasing public bus transportation, widening the road, adding tolls, and building snow sheds to help keep the road open when avalanches occur.

At a reportedly contentious June 1 meeting of the WFRC, a motion to approve the full scope of the plan, including construction of the gondola with conditions, passed unanimously, reported the Deseret News. 

Rafferty and Snowbird GM Dave Fields spoke at the meeting in favor of the gondola project, highlighting the need for a transportation system in the canyon that reduces reliance on individual vehicles. 

“This issue has a far bigger impact than the 10,000-15,000 skiers in Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) on a busy powder day,” Rafferty told SAM. “When Little Cottonwood Canyon breaks, as it did many times this year, it breaks Big Cottonwood Canyon as well, and poses significant impacts on traffic in both Park City and Snowbasin. With a multi-resort pass in your pocket, you’re going to ski somewhere, and finding a last-minute home for all those LCC-bound skiers can become problematic.” 

However, the overwhelming majority of public comments at the meeting were against the gondola, according to the Deseret News. Those that spoke against the project included representatives of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, Save Our Canyons, and outdoor retailer Patagonia.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson made a motion at the meeting to remove the gondola from the plan. It failed with only two votes in favor. Salt Lake County officials had already voted to formally condemn the project back in October.

A November 2021 poll by the Deseret News indicated that locals oppose the gondola at a rate of 3:1, supporting an extended bus system as their first choice for traffic mitigation.

Rafferty, however, said there is strong support for the project, but more local education is needed. “In our independent analysis, we find more support for the gondola than not,” he said. 

UDOT selected the gondola to be part of the transportation plan in August 2022 after an environmental review process that received more than 13,000 public comments. A condition outlined in the environmental impact statement calls for the first two phases of the plan to be implemented and evaluated before construction of the gondola can begin. 

If ultimately approved, the gondola would feature a central station along SR 21 at the base of the canyon, with a 2,500-space parking lot. It could transport 35 people eight-miles up Little Cottonwood—and directly to Alta and Snowbird—every two minutes.   

Rafferty said that while no solution is perfect, “finding a safe, reliable, clean and efficient way to move people would go a long way to mitigating the problem we have now.”

He said the ski industry is often under-appreciated for the amount of state and local tax dollars it generates, $257 million annually in Utah, as well as the jobs it creates, and recreation opportunities it brings to a region. 

“We are no different than any other industry in that we need to continue to improve and innovate our experience if we want to remain viable,” he said. “That sometimes means big projects like the LCC gondola. The population in Utah has doubled since I was a kid growing up here, but the number of resorts and the infrastructure leading to them has remained largely the same.”

According to UDOT, the gondola plan could undergo more modifications before it is released this summer.