No Gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon

The view from the top of Snowbird Ski Resort, in Utah looking down over Salt Lake City below during winter.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) approved a three-phase plan in July of 2023 which includes a gondola for Little Cottonwood Canyon, despite massive public opposition. 

The gondola is being pitched as a solution to traffic concerns up the canyon, but UPHE and many other groups and residents see it as a thinly veiled subsidy to the ski resorts up the canyon. 

The project was recently estimated to cost taxpayers a minimum of $729 million, but will more likely be well over $1 billion, not including operation and maintenance costs. The gondola would be 8 miles long, about two and a half miles longer than the current longest one in the world.

UDOT does not yet have funding for the gondola, so it’s imperative residents who oppose the project call state lawmakers. 

Sign the Petition!

More on why UPHE opposes ⇩

1. Irreparable damage to canyon aesthetics
We all love the beauty of our mountains, they provide a much needed retreat from urbanization. The aesthetic beauty of the canyon is an invaluable public health asset and the reason it attracts so many visitors. The beautiful canyon scenery that attracts so many visitors for reasons other than skiing would be permanently, irreparably degraded by 22 gondola towers, each 200 ft. tall, serviced by new roads big enough for huge trucks, which would cut through the wilderness of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

2. Not an adequate or needed traffic solution
Traffic congestion is not a serious issue aside from around 14 days during a typical ski season.  For such a narrow time frame, spending that kind of money on a rarely needed solution is extraordinary mismanagement of public funds and an extreme overreaction to a very limited problem. Furthermore, it would not necessarily solve the traffic congestion problem because skiers would still be able to drive if they choose to. With the cost and limitations of the gondola, many, if not most would choose to drive.

3. There are less destructive ways of handling traffic congestion
Expanded bus service would be much cheaper. Requiring reservations and limiting the number of people that can enter at the same time, like with other national and state parks, paid reserved parking, occupancy based highway tolling, would all be far more effective.

4. Unaffordable for average families
The average person will be priced out of even using the gondola. A final price has not yet been released, but Alta Township estimated the cost would be $111 per rider, per day. A project manager for UDOT’s Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Statement told Fox13 their initial estimates are $25-30 per person per day. Skiing is already a very expensive sport, and this will make it even more so. Ironically many people who can’t afford to ride the gondola will still have to pay for it through their taxes.

5. Public subsidy for two ski resorts
Because it only services two sites, Alta and Snowbird, the gondola at its core is a public subsidy for ski industry corporations. Many backcountry skiers, or other recreationists would not be able to access their intended sites via the gondola. Not only will they not be able to access their preferred recreation sites via gondola, but the construction efforts the gondola requires will permanently disrupt trailheads, climbing routes and other beautiful, currently accessible areas in the canyon.

6. Ski industry will be contracting in the future
Global warming and a shrinking Great Salt Lake are already affecting the ski industry and snowpack. With continued global warming a near certainty, and the overwhelming likelihood of less and less Wasatch Mountain snow pack overall, contraction of the ski season and ski industry, the gondola is very likely to become a stranded asset before it is ever built. That possibility is amplified by the increasing dust from a shrinking Great Salt Lake. A 2023 Deseret News article writes, “The highest snowpack dust concentrations in 13 years at an Alta study site were recorded in 2022, accelerating snowmelt by 17 days — and dry beds at the Great Salt Lake were the chief culprit in terms of the widespread nature of the dust.”  If we lose the ski industry right now, we would still have a beautiful canyon to enjoy, but much less so with gondola towers degrading its natural beauty.

7. Will degrade water quality 
The digging, blasting, and land disruption associated with tower construction is almost certain to be a source of water contamination for decades, and will diminish the canyon watershed. Little Cottonwood Creek is part of a protected watershed area that supplies Salt Lake County with drinking water. Furthermore, attracting more skiers through the gondola will also increase what is already a serious water quality issue, and that is the presence of toxic PFAS chemicals in many ski wax products. Even though some wax manufacturers are recognizing the problem, past history indicates that new, similar chemicals will be used as substitutes, but will be just as toxic. The EPA has recently stated that essentially no amount of PFAS exposure is safe, yet this problem is already largely unaddressed and will increase with more skiers attracted to these resorts.

8. Public rejects it
With UDOT stating “travel reliability” as its priority, we believe UDOT is badly out of step with the public. UDOT gives no reason to not disclose how many public comments opposed the gondola, but it is suspicious of UDOT’s bias and/or capitulation to political pressure. There is strong evidence that the overwhelming majority of public comments opposed the gondola. This Fox13 article quoted a handful of residents who explained why it isn’t a viable option for them. 

9. Ethical concerns
The gondola stands to make a few well connected, ethically compromised land owners rich, and a boon to wealthy ski corporations. But it will do little to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality, especially at the mouth of the canyon. There are much better alternatives to improving air quality, and much better ways to spend a billion dollars of taxpayer money.

10. Requires other infrastructure
Inherent in the gondola is the requirement for other infrastructure, such as a 2,500 car garage, and/or other parking lots near the mouth of the canyon. Access roads to all 22 towers would further degrade the natural appeal of the canyon, and move traffic congestion onto Wasatch Blvd and 9400 South. Getting 2,500 cars parked in a four story garage in a peak morning window is unrealistic. Over 3 hours that would require one car every four seconds. 

11. The novelty and appeal will wear off
Many skiers will likely be interested in experiencing the gondola, but not repeatedly, perhaps not even more than once. Unless the gondola actually saves them time, they will not likely use it recurrently.

The canyon as seen from a vantage point high on the ridge trail at Snowbird resort. The road leading up to the resort and the nearby town of Alta can be seen at the foot of the mountain range.

UPHE speaks out: 

“The Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola triggered 50,000 public comments, more than any project in UDOT history. The overwhelming majority were in opposition. But in Utah, where democracy is on life support from severe gerrymanderitis, UDOT has not committed a single molecule of concern over what the public wants. It’s all about what a handful of powerful, legislature-connected “non-angels” want.” 

– Dr. Brian Moench: Utah needs better angels to save nature

Dr. Moench’s comments to UDOT in 2021:

The Utah Dept. of Transportation (UDOT) all too often interprets its role in the community through the tunnel vision of prioritizing reduction of commuter travel time. In doing so, time and again UDOT bulldozes (literally) its way through the community, carving up intact neighborhoods, ignoring the air pollution and public health consequences, and serving the perceived need of one community at the expense of other communities, and the over all public good. Whether canyon traffic congestion is ameliorated by any of the proposed alternatives involves issues and community values that go far beyond UDOT’s expertise and value system.

So too is the proposal for relieving traffic congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon via a rail line or a gondola. Both of those alternatives are essentially a public subsidy to the ski industry, at the expense of virtually all other users of the canyon. Furthermore, with the rapid evolution of the climate crisis, it is certain that the ski industry will markedly contract because of shorter winters and less snow fall. To that extent, money spent on rail or a gondola will become partially, if not totally, a stranded asset, i.e. a complete waste of money.

Either alternative, but especially the gondola, with have a markedly detrimental impact on the unique aesthetic value of the canyon for the 2 million people that live within minutes of it.  People who use it for all the reasons other than downhill skiing would consider the value and natural appeal of the canyon severely degraded. The rail, and especially the gondola alternatives, would create every bit as much a transportation disadvantage for those canyon users as it would an advantage for skiers. 

This is also a class issue in that skiing is an expensive sport, beyond the reach of lower income families and even many middle-income users of the canyon. In contrast, hiking, picnicking, rock climbing, and backcountry skiing require far less monetary investment. Little Cottonwood Canyon is an irreplaceable asset that belongs to the public at large. The very idea that it should be carved up and disfigured using public money to provide yet another play-ground for the rich would be intolerable public policy.

Any alternative that requires widening the road would be a tragic and obviously permanent degradation of the canyon’s greatest asset, and the very reason why the majority of visitors go there—to see and experience the beauty of nature.  The very proposal is reminiscent of the infamous quote from a US army officer about a town during the Vietnam War, “We had to destroy the town to save it.”

The canyon also provides critical watershed for the Salt Lake Valley. There is every reason to believe that the digging, blasting and excavation from the proposed construction could take place in areas of legacy mining activity and therefore release more heavy metals, including lead, into the creek’s water. This possibility has not been adequately considered in the environmental impact of these alternatives.

I strongly oppose all the alternatives proposed by UDOT other than simple, expanded bus service up the canyon.

Op-eds opposing the gondola: 

Robert Gehrke: We’ll build a $728 million gondola so the rich can play. It’s The Utah Way.

Kirk Nichols: We can’t build our way out of congestion in the canyons

Ralph Becker: The gondola would destroy the Central Wasatch mountains

Jared Hargrave: Why I’m Against a Gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon 

Steve Camp: Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola is ideology of a cancer cell

Elizabeth Eve King: Despite public outrage, UDOT and their cronies are poised to get their way on the gondola

The Deseret News Editorial Board: The gondola wins at Little Cottonwood Canyon — or does it?