Traffic is Choking Utah Canyons—Is A Gondola the Solution?

The legend lives somewhere in the peaks of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Dendrites of just such a density, perfectly stratified, falling endlessly. The Land of “Gnarnia” blanketed with the Greatest Snow on Earth. If only you can get to it. The word is out. Denver is mercifully passé. Everyone is chasing the legend, and therein lies the foundations of the problem. There may not be enough of it to go around.

Wintertime traffic in and out of Little Cottonwood Canyon has reached a breaking point. The Red Snake of Death appears on Utah Highway 210 in both directions, devouring unsuspecting skiers and snowboarders. It’s still not the four-hour slog on Interstate 70 on Colorado’s Front Range, but it’s gotten grim enough for both public and private enterprises to take notice.

The fix, we’ve been told, is an eight-mile gondola—which would be the world’s longest—running from Wasatch Boulevard to Snowbird and Alta. There are roughly two decades and a host of other changes coming between now and then, but the Gondola has become Salt Lake City’s very own Monorail. It has captivated the attention of Utah, unleashed a torrent of emotion, and, frankly, sowed a wild amount of confusion.

How did we get here? What’s going to happen? Let’s Ask The People Involved


The winter of 2022-23 brought into acute focus the bottleneck in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The record snowfall and created historic avalanche conditions and led to repeated road closures that made traffic snarls a regular occurrence. It was a nadir for many powder hounds who found their ability to fit ski days into their everyday lives suddenly disrupted. The issue, however, had been on the minds of myriad officials for years.

Utah Gondola

Ralph Becker, the former Mayor of Salt Lake City and former Executive Director of The Central Wasatch Commission, has worked extensively on watershed and transportation issues in the Cottonwoods and says current planning “has lost the forest for the trees.” Photo by Adam Finkle

In 2018 the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) began an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Little Cottonwood Canyon and Wasatch Boulevard to devise a future system that would improve transportation on Utah Highway 210. While the EIS may have been the State’s formal start in seeking a solution for canyon traffic, interested parties already had been circling the issue.

A full decade ago, in 2013, a collaborative group of state, county and city elected leaders, transportation wonks, ski resort general managers, local property owners and environmental groups began a two-year process to develop a long-term sustainable solution for the Wasatch, culminating in the 2015 Mountain Accord Charter. The Accord’s recommendations were non-binding, but the extensive work involving often warring parties resulted in a meaningful set of goals to address the environment, transportation issues, recreation and the economy. The Accord offered a glimmer of optimism.

“Mountain Accord came up with a comprehensive solution that everybody agreed on—from the Governor to the legislature to conservation groups to the ski areas,” says Ralph Becker, the former Mayor of Salt Lake City who worked on Mountain Accord and later became the Executive Director of its successor, the Central Wasatch Commission (CWC). Becker was not the only person who felt this way about the promise of The Accord.

“I believe in shared pain and shared gain,” says Carl Fisher, Executive Director of the environmental advocacy group Save Our Canyons (SOC). Fisher had a seat at the Mountain Accord table and still represents his group’s interests on the CWC Stakeholder Council. “SOC has our agenda, vision, feelings and ideas, but when partnering with people their problems are ours and ours are theirs. That’s the only way things get done.”

However, as the process became more formalized, the issue’s focal point began wandering from where Mountain Accord and CWC had sought a solution. Instead of a holistic review of the Wasatch Front and Back, the EIS as outlined in 2018 called for focus specifically on Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“The scope of UDOT and the state’s work narrowed the assessment,” says Becker. “I think the EIS process had a faulty goal. We lost the forest for a few trees.”

Fisher concurs. “The problem was redefined,” he says. “If the question becomes, there’s an issue four months a year at two ski resorts, then what’s the answer going to be? The collective failure of our leaders was in abandoning a genuine process to find a solution for the ski industry.”

Josh Van Jura, UDOT’s project manager for the Little Cottonwood Canyon EIS, says skier traffic became the focal point because of its impact on the Cottonwood Canyons.

“The vast majority of people going up the canyon in the winter are going to the resorts,” Van Jura says. “We know the number of parking stalls at the resorts in Little Cottonwood compared to the rest of the canyon is about nine to one, so we were looking for solutions to provide direct transit service to the resorts to alleviate traffic. If we can reduce the number of private vehicles on the road by 30%, it will provide much more reliable travel time for everyone in the canyon.”


Utah Gondola

Carl Fisher, Executive Director of Save Our Canyons, wonders, “If the question becomes, there’s an issue four months a year at two ski resorts, then what’s the answer going to be?” Photo by Adam Finkle

In essence, the EIS is a federal process required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the guidelines of the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) executed with UDOT acting as the lead agent. Funding comes from the Utah Legislature. No matter what UDOT ultimately recommended from the EIS process, nothing gets built without some combination of the legislature allocating bonds, digging one-time surplus funds or rounding up federal funds with a local match. 

With the EIS focused primarily on Little Cottonwood, the goalposts moved, at least that’s what Fisher and Becker think, both of whom worked on Mountain Accord and with the CWC. But back in 2018, a gondola was little more than an aspirational marketing twinkle in the eyes of a few ski industry executives. Numerous transit options were on the table, including two enhanced bus options, two gondola options and a train. A sixth option, which involved doing nothing and maintaining the status quo was also on the table.

Through an endless string of meetings, public comment periods and engineering, environmental and cost analysis exercises, UDOT eventually issued its official Record of Decision on July 12, 2023, identifying “Gondola Alternative B” as their recommendation. 

“It’s an amazing milestone to reach this point after five years of intense effort,” Van Jura says. “So many people worked extremely hard on this, and tens of thousands of members of the public provided their input. People care so deeply about these mountains, and that’s reflected in how involved everyone was.”

Utah Gondola


The future is Gondola Alternative B. What does that mean? In very broad terms, Gondola Alternative B is a phased approach to implementing enhanced bussing—replete with mobility hubs at the bottom of the canyons—along with periodic tolling in Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons before ultimately constructing the world’s largest gondola from a base station at La Caille on Wasatch Boulevard with stops at Snowbird and Alta. The proposed plan will unfold in three phases.

Phase 1: (Estimated start date: Fall 2025, funding secured) Improved and increased bus service with mobility hubs, resort bus stops, tolling and roadside parking restrictions. 

Phase 2: (Start date and funding TBD): Show sheds for avalanche protection in Little Cottonwood, Wasatch Boulevard widening and trailhead improvements.

Phase 3: (Start date and funding TBD): Gondola system with 35-person cabins arriving every two minutes, base station access roads and parking with 2,500 stalls and canyon bus service ending once the gondola is operational.

As of now, only Phase 1 is funded. UDOT secured $211 million of the estimated $240 million it requires. The remaining two phases will require an additional $716.1 million in capital costs, totaling roughly $955.4 million for the entire project. Other total estimates are as high as $1.4 billion. Neither figure includes the estimated annual $21.7 million in gondola operating costs. When major project budgets extend several decades out, rounding errors veer into the tens of millions. Hazarding a guess at the final bill is a fool’s errand.

The gondola isn’t expected to start until 2043 at the absolute earliest. Visitors to Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons won’t notice any changes until at least 2025. “Starting bus service by 2025 is pretty optimistic,” Van Jura says. “There’s an 18–24 month delivery time for new buses, especially the specialized ones with lower gear ratios and automatic deployed chains needed in the canyons.”

Tolling won’t begin until the enhanced bus system—a low-cost alternative for riders—is available. This is a NEPA requirement and a moral imperative from an environmental justice standpoint. Restricting access to public lands in the Wasatch by implementing economic barriers is deeply problematic. Details are yet to be finalized, but UDOT estimates tolling vehicles roughly 50 days a year in the upper canyons during peak season and holidays.

So, expect mobility hubs, bus service and tolling restrictions in a couple of years. If you eat well, watch your blood pressure and exercise regularly, with a little luck you may get to ride a gondola in 25 more.


This question is at the heart of anti-gondola ire. UDOT never released an estimation of public approval for the project. But a glance through public comments showed plenty of opposition, and others have undertaken the effort. Salt Lake City resident Nick Firmani posted on Reddit, as reported by The Salt Lake Tribune, an analysis showing 89% of the roughly 13,000 comments obtained from the UDOT website were against the gondola. Reasons for opposition include environmental and watershed concerns, the visual impact of 250-foot-tall gondola towers, and queasiness about utilizing vast sums of public money to shuttle people primarily to two private resorts, among others.

Van Jura says he personally read every public comment but defends not quantifying their content

“The comment period isn’t designed to be a ballot referendum,” he says “We didn’t count ‘yeas’ and ‘nays.’ It was designed to get feedback from the public, and in fact, much of what we decided ultimately came from public input.” He refers to both the phased implementation structure and the overall layout with a revised starting point for the Gondola Alternative B. The gondola, he insists, was identified as the best choice because of its reliability and its limited environmental impact compared to alternatives

Still, some feel top-down influence precipitated momentum towards a gondola despite the collaborative efforts of Mountain Accord/CWC and the tide of public opinion and believe UDOT put its sizable thumb on the scale.

“I wasn’t on the inside at the state level, but I saw some things unfolding at the beginning,” Becker says. “The gondola was a dream in the eye of Nate Rafferty at Ski Utah and the ski area. Gondola Works was formed and a six-figure PR campaign convinced some state leaders on how cool this would be and how much it would help the ski industry and the state economy. I don’t know how big a role it played, but I think it led to the gondola being given favorable treatment compared to some alternatives.”

Utah Gondola

Josh Van Jura is UDOT’s project manager for Little Cottonwood Canyon. Photo by Adam Finkle

“Pressure comes on UDOT from a handful of places. It’s an agency in the governor’s administration and their budget is set by the legislature, so they’re somewhat at the mercy of their bosses,” Fisher says. “How is UDOT supposed to convene an open and transparent process? If they had, they would have listened to the public comments which were overwhelmingly against the gondola.”

The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) and the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), were intentionally agnostic to UDOT’s decision. Both organizations stressed their assistance on the project was to help UDOT simply by providing information and expertise. In fact, according to UTA Board of Trustees Chairman Carlton Christensen, UTA emphatically avoided taking sides.

“UDOT relied heavily on UTA for expertise and estimation of operational costs,” Christensen says. “I would say [UDOT] wanted us to take a stronger position on almost every front, but we felt as an organization it was not our place to take a formal position.”

And over at the WFRC, Communications Manager Mike Sobczak said in an email that his organization sat firmly on the fence.

“This is ultimately UDOT’s decision—not the WFRC’s,” Sobczak says. “We just play a required role in including the project in our 2023 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), as well as identifying funding resources for upcoming prioritized projects on the immediate horizon.”


There’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built, operated and maintained, and many questions remain. Who is going to operate the buses? Who is going to build and operate the gondola? Those remain open questions. UTA is the obvious choice for the buses, as the organization runs the ski buses currently in operation, but even that’s uncertain. UTA, after all, has a lot more on its plate than just getting skiers and snowboarders to the lifts.

“UTA may or may not be the actual provider of bus service for skiers. It depends on what UDOT decides,” says Christensen. “The reality is this concentration of ridership is a seasonal thing for us. UTA has no intention to walk away from ski service until there’s a good solution, but it isn’t what drives our long-term plans. If you provided this level of funding to our mid-range and long-range planners, there’d be a lot of excitement about what they could do to increase ridership throughout the state for people who rely on public transit to get to work and school.”

The gondola, meanwhile, would almost surely come from someone other than UTA. “UTA has never operated a gondola and we have no experience in that sort of planning,” Christensen adds.

Utah Gondola


“I’m not sure they communicated the phases particularly well,” Christensen says. “Phase 1 and Phase 2 are mostly about buses, and Phase 3 is the most expensive and controversial part. If enhanced busing works, it could save a lot of money. People don’t seem to understand that buses are stuck in the same traffic as private vehicles. Until controlled access is implemented with tolling and parking restrictions, I don’t think we’ll see the effectiveness enhanced bussing could have.”

UDOT’s Van Jura echoed this sentiment, indicating that, at least in the short term, this is a bus project. “All of our attention is devoted to Phase 1 at the moment. It’s the only thing we have funded right now,” he says.

Even Fisher finds some solace in the phased approach but worries little thought is being given to how the success or failure of early stages will impact the future. 

“Many of us broadly support Phase 1 components, but the process has prevented us from finding broader solutions for the long run. We’re going to spend $240 million, but UDOT hasn’t demonstrated what success from that would even look like or how that could affect future decisions,” he says.

UDOT’s recommendation essentially kicks responsibility to the Utah Legislature. For each upcoming phase, the legislature must provide funding to move forward. However, there’s no formal process to reassess the need for additional phases, which is something the WFRC had originally voted in favor of.

In theory, even if the first and/or second phases are wildly successful, there’s no formal review process to assess needs going forward. The only thing keeping taxpayers off the hook for the remainder of roughly $1 billion is the legislature voting explicitly to deny those funds without a true process to help determine if they should. Basically, while there’s no guarantee the gondola gets built, there’s not a lot checking its inertia.


Right now? Not much. Beware the Red Snake this winter. The future promises legal challenges, pro- and anti-gondola messaging and tussles from every interested corner, and probably a lot more misunderstanding and more consternation.

Amidst all that, there remains beauty to behold. The Cottonwood Canyons. The delicate grandeur of the Wasatch. The fleeting weightlessness of a perfect powder turn. It’s all still there if a bit more difficult to access than it once was. The plans may be drawn up, but the future remains unwritten. Don’t forget to enjoy the little things along the way there.  

Tony Gill
Tony Gill
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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