Utah council includes Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola in new transportation plan
Members of the Wasatch Front Regional Council voted Thursday to approve a new 27-year regional transportation plan that seeks to move forward over 1,000 transportation projects by 2050, including a gondola for Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Gondola plan opponents sat quietly as the council members — a group of elected leaders from throughout the Wasatch Front and state agency representatives — voted unanimously in favor of the plan after rejecting an amendment that would have moved the large plan forward without the gondola. The vote opens up the possibility for federal funding on all the projects in the future.
In response to a few jeers from the crowd after the vote, South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey, also the council's chairwoman, explained that the plan is a "living document" that is adjusted every four years. That means projects can be added and dropped from the plan in the future.
"It is evaluated and ongoing," she said.
The council also included a statement saying it does support "prioritizing" and evaluating the first and second phases of the Utah Department of Transportation's plan for Little Cottonwood Canyon before "advancing" to the third phase, which is a gondola.
The first phase is increased bus service, tolling/congestion-based pricing, and roadway improvements that could begin as early as this year. The second phase, currently scheduled to begin in the 2030s, calls for avalanche snow sheds and trailhead improvements. A gondola and base station parking are part of the third phase of the plan, currently scheduled to begin in the 2040s.
The total group of projects, including a gondola, features $26 billion worth of roads, transit lines and trails, according to the council. But they say the series of projects has the ability to increase access to jobs in the region by 31% on roads and 71% through transit, while increasing bicycle trail access by 43%.
"The Wasatch Front Region, and Utah as a whole, continues to experience high population growth. There are more of us with more places to go. The 2023-2050 Regional Transportation Plan helps our local communities and transportation partners stay ahead of this growth, working together to plan for the next several decades and build a network of paths, roads and transit that will benefit all Utahns," Ramsey added in a statement Thursday afternoon.
A focus on the gondola
While there are more than 1,000 transportation projects in the plan, Thursday's meeting focused almost exclusively on the gondola.
UDOT announced in August 2022 it would move forward with a $550 million gondola to help growing traffic concerns in the canyon, in addition to enhanced bus service and tolling. The agency has yet to finalize its record of decision, though. That process is ongoing, according to UDOT director Carlos Braceras, who also serves on the Wasatch Front Regional Council.
But Thursday's vote had some significance toward the project. Carl Fisher, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Save Our Canyons, called it a "critical step" toward allowing UDOT to add the gondola to its record of decision. That's why he and dozens of others came to the meeting to plead with the council to drop it from its long-range transportation plan.
Those against the gondola argued that the project comes at the cost of public taxpayers while benefitting private resorts, would cause harm to the environment in the canyon, and shouldn't be added until a record of decision is reached. Alta Mayor Roger Bourke added that it didn't appear the council was taking into consideration what the public had to say on the issue.
"We tell ourselves that we live in a democracy, that democracy ... and the preference of the people are supposed to have some sway. With (regard) to the gondola, the will of the people has been expressed in comments in the (UDOT environmental impact statement) and they are overwhelmingly against it," he said. "It remains on the books apparently for bureaucratic reasons."
Ski Utah president and CEO Nathan Rafferty, Snowbird general manager Dave Fields and developer Chris McCandless all spoke out in favor of keeping the gondola in the long-range plan during the meeting.
They argued that when Little Cottonwood Canyon closes because of traffic, it has a ripple effect where other resorts are flooded across the Wasatch region.
"This winter demonstrated, better than ever, the need for a transportation system in Little Cottonwood Canyon that is not exclusively reliant on vehicles on the highway," Fields said, pointing to the several road closures caused by avalanches and mudslides over the past few months.
The council's decision
Members of the council ultimately decided to vote to include the gondola after a debate over their legal requirements rather than the gondola's merit. Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini referenced a legal review conducted by the council that determined that leaving the gondola off the plan could "jeopardize" the plan altogether, possibly delaying all the other projects included in the document.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson asserted that the county's legal review found nothing that backed the claim. She introduced a substitution that would have removed the gondola from the future transportation plan while keeping the rest of the plan intact, citing the mostly one-sided public comment against the project.
"I feel today, perhaps the minority (on the council), but I believe I stand with the majority with concerns about this," she said.
The council rejected Wilson's amendment by a 19-2 vote after a short debate before the final vote came down. Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson, the council's vice chairman, said the final plan will ultimately serve the entire region "now and in the future."
People who attended the meeting to voice their concern over the plan said they hope the future doesn't include a gondola, even as the process moves forward a little more. Fisher told KSL.com after the meeting that he is "disappointed" by the vote but believes the fight isn't over.
"I foresee many legal challenges," he said. "There has not been an (environmental impact statement) in history that has had this volume of public engagement and passion, so I imagine there will be numerous lawsuits that will tie this up."