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When Michael Allen first moved to Salt Lake City more than 20 years ago for college, he could leave campus at 8:15 a.m. and be at Snowbird, one of the premier ski and snowboard destinations in the world, in time to catch the first tram up the mountain at 9 a.m. Such was the joy of living in on the edge of the Wasatch mountain range, home to some of the world’s best resorts and backcountry skiing, a general paradise for outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and one of the few major cities in the country where outdoor enthusiasts can squeeze in a few runs at some of the best skiing or snowboarding in the world before heading to class or the office.
Since Allen moved to Salt Lake, the county’s population exploded from just over 900,000 people in 2000 to 1.16 million in 2020, almost a 30 percent increase. Many of those people—not to mention an increasing number of tourists each year—came to Salt Lake at least in part because of its easy access to powder days.
There are four main resorts in the Wasatch Range within a short driving distance of Salt Lake City: Brighton and Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon; and Alta and Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Each canyon is accessible via a mostly two-lane road about eight to ten miles long. And in recent years, getting to and from the mountains increasingly involves getting stuck in traffic.
For Allen, who is an avid user of the canyons year round, what used to be a predictable 35-minute drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon has become a crapshoot. It could still be as little as 35 minutes. Or it could take hours. Recently, he left his house at 7 a.m., two hours before Snowbird opens, to ensure he’d get the first tram. His friend left at 7:20 a.m., just 20 minutes later. It took Allen 45 minutes to get to Snowbird. It took his friend three hours.
“Now, if you left town at 8:15 in the morning, on most weekends, you may not be able to park,” Allen told Motherboard, and they’d send you right back down the canyon.
There is no debate among Salt Lake’s outdoor enthusiasts and transportation officials that traffic up Little Cottonwood Canyon has become a problem. For five years, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has studied the problem and conducted an environmental review of possible solutions. It considered enhancing the current bus system, which currently runs to the resorts with a bus every 30 minutes (both with and without widening the road), a cog rail train, and a gondola from two different base stations.
“I was naive,” said Brad Rutledge of the all-volunteer non-profit group Wasatch Backcountry Alliance which has closely followed the process, “because four years ago or so, in the environmental impact statement study was announced, I was thinking, that’s fantastic, you know, traffic’s kind of an issue in Little Cottonwood Canyon, I can’t wait to see what the study comes out to say.”
In August, UDOT announced its preferred solution. It wants taxpayers to spend at least $550 million to build an eight-mile long gondola with a base station at the foot of the canyon with 2,500 parking spots. If built, it would be the longest and most expensive gondola in the world.
Urban gondolas—ones designed to provide a transportation solution rather than a purely tourist-focused attraction—pop up every once in a while but rarely make it past the fancy rendering stage of transportation hype. The most successful urban gondolas (or “cable cars” as they are usually called in urban transportation contexts) are in South America. Gondola boosters reference Medellín, Colombia or La Paz, Bolivia, two cities that have made gondolas a component of their transit landscapes to serve extremely hilly terrain that can’t easily accommodate traditional buses (both cities also have extensive bus systems, and Medellín has a Metro, as well as a series of giant urban escalators).
In the U.S., the urban gondola’s track record of rendering-to-reality is much spottier. A proposed gondola across the Potomac River connecting Arlington, Virginia and Georgetown in Washington, D.C. has been discussed for more than a decade without much movement besides D.C. acquiring a potential landing site. “Consider the gondola” was the unofficial rallying cry of a group trying to connect Williamsburg, Brooklyn with Manhattan before the L train was supposed to be shut down for 18 months for repairs (ironically, the full shut down never actually took place and repairs were done on nights and weekends instead).
But a few urban gondolas do exist in the U.S. Up the East River, the Roosevelt Island tramway opened in 1976; it was the only transportation between the quasi-utopian development on the island and Manhattan for more than a decade until a long-delayed subway connection finally opened in 1989, after which it has largely served tourists for the skyline views. The Portland Aerial Tram, which opened in 2006, is part of the city’s transportation system connecting to a medical center and a residential neighborhood that before the pandemic averaged about 10,000 riders per weekday and is largely considered a success—perhaps even too successful, as it sometimes sees long lines. Other urban gondola plans in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Austin have, so far, not materialized, although the Los Angeles idea of connecting Union Station to Dodger Stadium via gondola is going through the environmental review process.
There is a reason why most cities don’t build gondolas and, if they do, keep the trips to just a few minutes long serving a specific location. Gondolas are low-capacity vehicles that quickly get cramped if turned into high capacity ones. They don’t work well for multiple stops. As a result, they are a point-to-point transportation method with low capacity. They are also expensive, especially relative to how many people they might serve, making them financially unattractive options for most applications. At their best, gondolas work when traversing difficult terrain with a consistent but low ridership, which is why they’re most often deployed on ski resorts.
The Cottonwood Canyon gondola would be a hybrid of sorts between urban transportation solution and resort-based gondola. The proposal is to build a massive 2,500-spot parking garage at the base of the canyon, about 20 miles from downtown and the airport, where people will park. They will then ride the gondola for 27 minutes to Snowbird or 37 minutes to Alta, a trip duration which has no parallel in the urban or resort gondola scene (the Snowbird tram, one of the most famous in the world, fits more than 100 people per tram but takes less than 10 minutes to ride). Even though the gondola would serve two ski resorts, it belongs more to the urban gondola concept because it is being proposed and recommended by the state’s transportation department as a solution to a recurring traffic problem.
Despite the novelty of the gondola and the unique problem it is attempting to solve, the debate over Little Cottonwood gondola has followed the familiar beats of any local transportation fight. There is a real problem that needs to be addressed, but two factions have coalesced around separate solutions, each accusing the other of bad faith arguments and misguided math. The pro-gondola faction headed by an organization called Gondola Works, which is backed by the ski resorts, argues it is the fastest, most reliable and environmentally-friendly solution because electric buses can’t get up the canyon, an argument UDOT officials back because they argue battery-electric buses cannot generate enough power to get up the consistently steep grade of the canyon road and are not yet reliable enough in cold weather. As part of its campaign, Gondola Works produced a slick advertisement through a third-party PR firm that portrays buses as cramped, dirty, and inefficient but gondolas as clean, silent and spacious, despite the fact that large gondola stations are, in fact, quite loud, as any skier or snowboarder knows. (It is a practical impossibility to discuss the gondola without making at least one reference to The Simpsons monorail episode, both because of the obvious transportation boondoggle parallels and the fact that one of the gondola’s biggest boosters, a former city councilman, also happened to own the land on which the base station would be cited, and which he also claimed to have recently sold.) Gondola Works did not respond to multiple Motherboard interview requests for this story.
Opponents of the gondola—which has been lambasted by many of the region’s politicians, conservation groups, and backcountry enthusiasts, an increasingly popular hobby that doesn’t use resort amenities and prizes untouched wilderness—argue it is a taxpayer handout to the resorts for a tourist attraction that won’t be useful for local residents and will cause more problems than it solves while viable, proven, simple alternatives like tolling, comprehensive bus routes with frequent service, and parking reservation systems haven’t been fully tested.
But, also like most local transportation fights, the two sides are in large part talking past each other, because they are proposing their own solutions for two different problems, a dynamic that mirrors every attempt to widen highways and expand road capacity across the country. For UDOT and the ski resorts, the problem is a simple one. Too many people want to get up and down the canyon on peak winter days such as weekends, holidays, and powder days after a big snow dump. Their goal is to get more people in the canyon, and they believe the gondola is the best way to do it.
But opponents of the gondola argue the road and parking limitations are actually a benefit, not something to be overcome. The two-lane road and limited number of parking spots in the canyon acts as a natural limiter on the daily capacity in the canyon, ensuring it is both preserved for future generations and enjoyable for the current one to use, a key reason why the area’s resorts don’t become overcrowded with long lift lines or packed slopes like marquee resorts in other parts of the country. To them, the traffic is a problem to be solved through more efficient use of a limited resource, not by rejecting those limitations.
In this respect, the gondola fight in Salt Lake City mirrors many other highway expansion battles across the country, from the I-35 fight in Austin and the I-5 debacle in Portland, Oregon. While each situation has its local quirks, in each case a city or state transportation department is confronting an infrastructure problem with the focus of expanding capacity in the long term. Also in each case, it is legally obligated to perform an environmental review that takes into account other impacts, particularly to the natural world, of that expansion. And, in each case, local activists accuse the government authority of not performing that review in good faith, omitting key information, and using opaque algorithms to tip the scale to a preferred solution that does not solve the fundamental problem at hand. At its core, the gondola fight and others like it show a shifting balance in the transportation world as more vocal critics of the old approach argue a focus on capacity must give way to a focus on efficiency.
“I think how you define the problem is probably where a lot of the discord, if you will, has emerged,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of the nonprofit Save Our Canyons, which was founded in the 1970s as a counterforce to the expansionist interests of the for-profit ski resorts. “This gondola is really all about mainlining a lot more people into the canyon.”
While everyone agrees traffic has become a problem in the canyon, the sides disagree on how consequential the traffic problem actually is. According to Josh Van Jura, the project manager overseeing the Little Cottonwood Canyon environmental review, there have been 49 hours over 22 days so far this ski season (as of February 23) “that have experienced excessive travel times,” Van Jura told Motherboard, in what has been a stellar ski season in Utah’s Wasatch range (the excellence of this year’s ski season seems to be the only thing everyone agrees on).
Gondola skeptics look at that same data and argue a new, expensive, and physically permanent transportation system is overkill to solve a problem that exists a maximum of 50 days a year. For example, the day I spoke to Allen, the backcountry enthusiast, was a mid-week winter day. Ski conditions were good, but there was no fresh powder, and consequently no traffic on the road up the canyon. Another way of framing UDOT’s data is that even during the best winter in recent memory the canyon still has no traffic problems whatsoever two out of every three days.
Given that the traffic problem is obviously one of extreme one-way peak demand—people want to get up the canyon early in the morning and down the canyon in the late afternoon—measures like high occupancy vehicle requirements, tolling, and frequent bus service are all on the table as temporary measures while the gondola is being built, Van Jura said. But, when asked if UDOT would consider nixxing the gondola if those strategies work well, Van Jura said the agency is committed to the gondola because “UDOT believes the gondola is the best long-term solution because it provides the best travel time reliability for users,” he told Motherboard.
But Rutledge of the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance looks at UDOT’s analysis and doesn’t see how that can be the case. According to the executive summary of the environmental study—which is what most people will read considering the actual study is tens of thousands of pages long consisting of 84 separate PDFs—a 35-person gondola will depart every two minutes for a total peak capacity of 1,050 people per hour. The gondola station will have a parking garage of 2,500 spots, which Van Jura says they expect to be full on busy days. Even if resort employees and eager skiers show up in time to get first tracks when the resorts open at 9 a.m., it is possible the gondola will have a line, perhaps a very long one—as many gondolas on ski resorts have—defeating the entire purpose of building one to alleviate delays getting up the canyon.
Van Jura thinks this won’t be a problem because he expects people to arrive over a three-to-four hour timespan, from roughly 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. He believes, based on the agency’s analysis, wait times should never exceed eight or ten minutes for a gondola cabin, and that any suggestion “the entire parking structure would fill up in one hour is pretty unreasonable.”
Even so, it is unclear why the gondola would not be subject to crowding and excessive delays that plague the road when it would have less than half the peak hour capacity of the road, according to UDOT’s figures. Nor is it clear why people would want to pay for the privilege to take the gondola without significant traffic management strategies on the road up the canyon, since even by UDOT’s estimate, a gondola ride with a 10 minute wait would take twice as long as driving up the canyon.
This is also a source of concern for frequent canyon users like Allen and Rutledge, locals who often don’t spend all day in the canyons. That extra hour of travel time by UDOT’s own estimation would likely make it infeasible to go for an early morning run before work, they say.
“As somebody who lives here, I mean, whether backcountry skiing or not, it doesn’t seem like the gondola is for me,” Allen said.
On top of that, critics of the gondola are baffled that the agency wants to commit to a $500 million-plus solution that will take at least five to ten years to build without knowing whether much cheaper, easier, and sensible alternatives work.
For example, Rutledge cited the recent introduction at Alta resort—aside from Snowbird, the other major ski area in Little Cottonwood—of a parking reservation system on weekends and holidays to alleviate the need to get up the canyon as early as possible to snag a spot. Rutledge, Fisher, and the Alta website all say the reservation system has noticeably improved traffic conditions even though it only applies to the smaller of the two resorts in the canyon. Van Jura of UDOT disputed that, telling Motherboard “We haven’t seen that has significantly reduced traffic out of the peak hour” but allowed that they have “limited data at this point.”
It would seem prudent, the canyon users argue, to at least try some of the other measures before committing to the gondola, which will permanently alter the canyon. Especially considering the Utah Transit Authority had to cut bus service to the resorts this year due to driver shortages, it seems logical a commitment to fast, frequent bus service in conjunction with an HOV-only policy or tolling system in the canyon would accomplish more than a gondola.
A more extreme solution would be to ban private vehicles on the road up the canyon entirely, something few are advocating for at this point but has precedent elsewhere in Utah. Zion National Park has banned private vehicles along Zion National Canyon during peak season for more than 20 years due to traffic, parking, and environmental concerns. Visitors take a free shuttle bus instead. Indeed, the general idea that the number of people who wish to experience nature exceeds the daily capacity at those nature spots is hardly unique to Utah and is a widespread problem across the nation’s major national parks. Acadia National Park in Maine also implemented a vehicle reservation system for its busiest road due to a surge in demand and experts urge other overcrowded parks to do the same.
Although UDOT plans to make its final decision this summer, Rutledge considers the fight far from over. If the Wasatch Front Regional Council, the metropolitan planning organization for the region, does not include the gondola in its transit plan, it will likely close an avenue for using public funding to pay for the gondola. Even if it does get included, the groups plan to launch further initiatives with local politicians to block funding for it.
For their part, Rutledge and Fisher of Save Our Canyons do not advocate for doing nothing, as the Gondola Works website chides critics for doing. They prefer the busing alternatives in conjunction with HOV restrictions, tolling, and other demand management strategies that move people in and out of the canyon more efficiently while also embracing the limitations of our natural resources.
“We don’t need to be sending more people up there,” Rutledge said. “What we need to be doing is talking about this in a different way.”