Wanted: Stairway to Powder Heaven

What’s the most dangerous animal in Utah? The red snake of death. The beast—formed of illuminated taillights writhing in seeming perpetuity on State Route 210 in Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) amid full-on powder panic—has become omnipresent in recent years, and it’s threatening to devour us all. The immense traffic pressure in the Cottonwood Canyons has fast become untenable as more people come in search of the world-famous Greatest Snow On Earth each year. In an effort to solve the problem, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) began an Environmental Impact Statement in 2018 in partnership with the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS). 

The main alternatives in consideration are, one, enhanced bus service on a dedicated shoulder lane and, two, a gondola connection that runs from near the base of LCC to Snowbird and Alta. Each proposal comes with a price tag of more than half a billion dollars—much of it funded by the state. The goal of both is to reduce single occupancy vehicles on the road. It’d better work. 

Gondolas and buses each have their merits and shortcomings. Buses, which would depart every five minutes and travel in dedicated lanes, offer the fastest travel time. On the other hand, the required infrastructure, including widened roads and large snowsheds to protect the road through avalanche prone sections, carries substantial environmental penalties. A gondola would run reliably regardless of the weather conditions and imposes less of an environmental burden, but would only riders going to Snowbird and Alta. Many dispersed recreation users (hikers, bikers, climbers, backcountry skiers, etc.)—who comprise an estimated half of LCC visitors—would be on their own, probably driving to the trailhead in single occupancy vehicles. 

UDOT wrapped up its 45-day public comment period last month and is hoping to choose a solution before the end of the year. By many measures, the bus solution appears to be fighting an uphill battle. The road would need to be widened to 84 feet, which is roughly as wide as Highway 189 through Provo Canyon. That scale is unfathomable to those familiar with the geography of LCC, who are concerned about water quality for the rapidly-growing population along the Wasatch Front. 

 “The erosion and increased turbidity (clouding) would impact the water supply for a million people. These are our watersheds and they’re congressionally mandated to be managed as such,” says Carl Fisher, executive director of the conservation group Save Our Canyons. The widened roads would also negatively impact the climbing population, Fisher says, by decimating some of the roadside climbing areas enjoyed by generations of climbers. Using public funding to prioritize one user group over another is rarely a good look. 

“We don’t believe anything with tires on it is the answer,” says Dave Fields, General Manager of Snowbird, a member of the Gondola Works Coalition—the group which supports the gondola concept. “Highway 210 is the most avalanche prone road in the country, and it only works as well as the worst car on it.” Fields is far from an impartial commenter on the subject, but his observation is astute. One driver can slide off and back up the whole roadway, a frequent occurrence when AWD and chain rules aren’t enforced. 

Save Superior With the Gondola?

As a carrot to garner public support for the gondola solution and ease concerns over runaway development, Snowbird is offering to put more than 1,000 acres of unused land it holds in Little Cottonwood Canyon into a conservation easement in partnership with Utah Open Lands. The protection of that land, which includes much of Mount Superior and the surrounding area, would offer some consolation for conservationists opposed to increased canyon infrastructure.

The gondola will work during heavy snowfall, is unaffected by avalanche activity in LCC, offers carbon-neutral operation and is frankly more elegant than a bus. “You have to ride a bus. You get to ride a gondola,” Fields notes. Still, nothing here is perfect. An angle station on the route would wipe out what is now Tanner’s Flat Campground, and parking capacity remains a problem. Current plans call for 1,500 paid parking spots at the gondola base, an inadequate number to serve the number of people that need to use the gondola to eliminate the target of reducing 50 percent of cars. Plus, a toll to help pay for gondola operation would be implemented for drivers in LCC, including dispersed recreation users whom the gondola does not serve. 

There are valid concerns about the social equity of a publicly funded transit project that primarily benefits two private businesses, Snowbird and Alta, along with landowners where the base station will be built. Fisher questions whether the debate is actually occurring on a level playing field. “The bus alternative as proposed seems like it’s just there to run interference and clear the way for the gondola,” Fisher says. “Gondola proposals have been very politically popular, and that influences the way UDOT approaches the issue.”

The toughest question facing the $600 million decision is if it’s even solving the right problem. Adding canyon infrastructure to deal with crowds will ultimately lead to more crowds, thus requiring further infrastructure. “It’s a positive feedback loop, and that’s not sustainable,” Fisher says. “It doesn’t connect our communities to the resorts. It purely serves a political and economic development purpose. Even if it were successful, it doesn’t address Big Cottonwood Canyon, so we’d have to revisit the issue again.”  

Since this article was published in our September/October 2021 print issue, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson criticized both options while announcing her preference for enhanced bus services. Last month, some Utahns protested the gondola proposal.

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Tony Gill
Tony Gillhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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