UDOT Weighing Gondolas and Buses as Little Cottonwood Transit Solution

The powder day traffic to and from Alta and Snowbird has gotten out of hand. The red snake of death—the endless train of activated taillights illuminating S.R. 210—is enough to drive even the thirstiest powder hounds mad while seeking skiing nirvana. The Greatest Snow on Earth falls at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and everybody knows it. Don’t @ me, Colorado. The ubiquitous awareness of this fact brings more people in search of cold smoke each year, creating an untenable transit and parking situation. Last year 2.1 million people made the trip up LCC, and only seven percent of them used public transportation to get there. The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is on the hunt to boost that number and break the canyon logjam.

Public transit may seem terrifying at this particular moment in history, but pre-COVID most of us were clamoring for it as an essential service in need of expansion to alleviate powder-panic traffic and, as a marginally more pressing matter, save the planet. UDOT initially considered 105 proposals for an integrated transportation project to address current and future traffic demands on S.R. 210. They’re down to three final choices—two and a half, really, since a couple of them rely primarily on more buses—that will have a huge impact on how skiers and snowboarders get up the canyon. Notably, a rail spur up the canyon was not among those making the final cut. Though a seemingly popular solution, a canyon train was estimated to cost $680 million when the idea was first considered in 2013 and more than $one billion now.

The first—and certainly most innovative—proposal is a 30-cabin gondola that runs from the current park and ride lot at the base of the canyon up to Alta. The gondola would feature angle stations at Tanner’s Flat and Snowbird and would whisk riders to the top of LCC in 46 minutes. That may be longer than it would take you to drive in perfect weather at 5:00 a.m. on a Wednesday, but it’s a paltry amount of time for those used to being trapped in the red snake. Plus, you can look at Instagram during the ride without ending up in the river on the side of the road. The gondola solution would cost $393 million and would require the construction of additional off-site parking with bus service to the base of the gondola.

Proposal number two involves widening S.R. 224 with a bus-only shoulder lane to accommodate a vastly increased number of buses to take riders up the canyon. Six buses per hour would head to each resort, and it would take 37 minutes to get all the way to Alta. This proposal also includes the construction of snow sheds over parts of S.R. 210 to protect the road from avalanche damage. Widening the road would be a serious undertaking but would have the added benefit of providing a safe bike and pedestrian lane in the summer. Total estimated cost for this proposal is $470 million.

The final proposal is increased bus service without widening S.R. 210 to increase road capacity. Under this plan snow sheds and off-site mobility hubs would still be built to mitigate avalanche delays and handle increased rider capacity, and the average ride time to Alta would be 46 minutes. Estimated cost for this bus-only proposal is $283.

Every one of these proposals would include building off-site mobility hubs, widening Wasatch Boulevard and giving bus priority on the route to the base of the canyon. Discussions have also included the possibility of vehicle tolls and limited resort parking to incentivize people to ditch their cars in favor of public transit. My vote would be for the gondola, because the year-round views during the ride would be incredible, and it frankly sound far more interesting than a fleet buses.

A funding source for the project has not yet been identified, but UDOT seems confident they can scrape together the hundreds of millions of dollars it will take. Public comments are being accepted until July 10, and local input will be a significant contributing factor in the decision-making process. Make your voice heard by clicking here to submit a comment, and to read more complete details of each plan. UDOT plans to make a final decision before the end of 2021.

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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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