The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) yesterday released its final record of decision (ROD) to move forward with construction of a controversial eight-mile-long gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The ROD, the final step in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process implemented in 2018 to examine transportation solutions for the congested canyon, gives the nod to begin a phased approach to easing transportation issues in the canyon. The gondola and related infrastructure are slated for the final phase of the three-phase project with an estimated $728 million price tag.
UDOT expects the first two phases—which include expanded bus service, tolling in the canyon, widening Wasatch Boulevard, and building snow sheds—to be completed by fall 2025.
While there is local support for the work outlined in the first two phases of the project, construction of the gondola has been met with some trepidation. UDOT initially unveiled the plans for the gondola in August 2022 and received more than 50,000 public comments. But ski industry officials say UDOT’s approval is a big step in addressing traffic—and related safety issues—in the canyon.
“Ski Utah is grateful for UDOT’s diligence in a thorough process to address the traffic problems that have plagued Little Cottonwood Canyon for decades,” Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, told SAM. “Today marks an important milestone towards a day when safe, reliable, efficient, and clean transportation is available to a wide variety of canyon users.”
Dave Fields, president and general manager of Snowbird, echoed Rafferty’s sentiments, adding: “As a lifelong Little Cottonwood skier, I have watched myriad agencies try unsuccessfully to address the unique problems of this canyon, and it’s encouraging to see a plan move forward.”
Fields told SAM that last winter, Snowbird employees spent a total of 42 nights at the resort due to inclement weather, including a two-week period in April, which was partially spurred by increased use of the canyon.
“Snow nights have always been a staple of resort life in Little Cottonwood Canyon, but as UDOT deals with the increased pressure on the canyon due to Utah’s population growth, we’re seeing an increased reliance on overnight closures when avalanche mitigation is expected the following day,” he said.
Snowbird, the largest private landowner in the canyon, purchased the land where the gondola base station will be located and will either donate this land or sell it “for what we paid for it” to UDOT to build the gondola, added Fields.
It’s noteworthy that a condition outlined in the environmental impact statement calls for the first two phases of the project to be implemented and evaluated before construction of the gondola can begin. Currently only phase one of the project has received funding, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
When complete, the gondola will feature a central station at the base of the canyon along with a new 2,500-stall parking lot. It will have the capacity to transport 1,050 passengers per hour at 35 people per cabin.
Construction of the gondola comes with an estimated price tag of about $370 million, with construction of the parking garage, tolling infrastructure, and trailhead improvements bumping that number up to the $700+ million total. It will require an additional estimated $4 million per year in operating costs, UDOT project manager Josh Van Dura told the Tribune.