The Cottonwood Debate, Post 1/3 — A Gondola? Really?

Posted by Jeff Roche on

The Cottonwood Debate, Post 1/3 — A Gondola? Really?

Even though UDOT, the UTA, and the US Forest Service opened their Environmental Impact Statement according to the standards of the National Environmental Protection Act in 2019, the conversation about a solution to the winter ski-traffic menace in Little Cottonwood Canyon has been long-going for more than a decade. What’s the problem? Most of us know first-hand the frustration of the long red snake of passenger vehicles that moves in and slowly makes its way up the canyon, especially on winter days. The congestion and pollution coming from 1.2 million vehicle trips carrying approximately 2.1 million people per year up a two-lane mountain road makes for a blight that needs to be fixed. And it’s all coming to a head soon. Salt Lake City was scheduled to have made a decision by the end of 2021 but now that decision is coming down in the next few weeks. As a skier, a business owner in Holladay, someone who lives just ten miles from the mouth of the canyon, and a dad, I care a whole lot about the solution. I know I’m not alone. The fact is, if the city biffs this – along with other major issues it faces right now (water and air quality to name two), it’s going to have long-term consequences on this metro area and the people who live here. I’ve put a lot of thought into the two major options on the table right now and I’ve also come up with a third, which is so obvious that it shocks me that we’re not already implementing it. In a three-part series, I’m going to lay them out and talk straight about each of them: The Gondola Option, The Road Expansion Option, and a third option that I’m presenting that’s currently not in consideration — the BUS MUST WIN solution. I appreciate your hearing me out in this thought experiment/narrative, and I welcome your comments.

We took the Gondola today. 

Gondola Works circus??

Saturday, December 18th, 2030

My family and I took the Gondola up to ski today. We got up early to pack the car with all our ski gear. After breakfast, all of us stoked, we headed out at 7:15am to pick up our 12-year-old daughter’s ski pal in our neighborhood. Because she lives close to the mouth of the canyon, we were psyched to stay off I-215 because it was already looking busy. We parked at a transit center by Old Mill golf course on Wasatch Boulevard and unloaded all our gear. At the stop, we schlepped all our gear onto the UTA bus, which we took to the La Caille Gondola Transit Center. Surprisingly, the UTA bus got caught in a red snake of traffic. Interesting that the effort to move the traffic from Little Cottonwood Canyon seems to have just shifted it down further into the city and Wasatch Boulevard was locked up. It took us 30 minutes to get from Old Mill to the La Caille Gondola Transit Center. At 8am, we unloaded our gear, again, and got in line at La Caille. While my wife and the kids waited in the Gondola line, I went over and waited in the coffee line. A half hour later we lifted our gear, for the 5th time that morning, onto the Gondola. Despite the long wait and the steps along the way, it was our turn and we were stoked!

The Gondola ride was quite exciting. It was snowing hard so we couldn’t see any canyon views but the Gondola ride was one hour as advertised. At 9:30am we unloaded our gear (again). We then climbed three flights of stairs over to the Snowbird tram and loaded our gear (again). It was now 10am — the line at the Aerial Tram line is no joke. At 10:15am we arrived at the top of Hidden Peak. I looked at my watch and felt, honestly, like crap. We were now three hours into our ski commute. We had loaded and unloaded our gear SEVEN times and we had skied zero vertical feet. 

My wife and I elected to buy a private shuttle down the canyon rather than endure another 3-hour commute back home after our day of skiing. What family wants to spend six hours commuting for a family recreation day? How many moms or dads want to load and unload their and their kids’ gear 14 times just to get on and off the mountain?

I took the Gondola today. I will not be taking it again, ever.

Roadway expansion project in our watershed??

The public discussion weighing the Gondola project has completely skipped over user experience. Let alone the time and effort I described above, let’s talk about the traffic experience in the city. Yes, Little Cottonwood is a traffic bottleneck now. As the one central transit station with only two entrance/exit points, the La Caille Gondola Transit Center will be an even worse clot in the system. How will that work for the user? How will that affect all the residents in Sandy and Cottonwood Heights trying to make left turns across the backed-up traffic? What about the idling pollution now being brought right into our neighborhoods?

The other missing piece in the Gondola discussion is that it only has two stops: Snowbird and Alta. Last time I checked, Backcountry skiers do not need transit to Snowbird or Alta. Neither do snowshoers or hikers. And what about the canyon adventurers who want to go up in the other seasons — the climbers, mountain bikers, road bikers, or even picnickers — they don’t need a sky ride to Snowbird or Alta either. 

The Gondola is not a progressive solution. Based on the needs of yearlong Little Cottonwood users and the residents who live in the communities at the mouth of the canyon, it’s actually quite backward.

Meanwhile, here we are in the year 2022. The Gondola or improved roadway is eight years away. What happens between now and 2030? Like many residents, I’m disappointed there is no public discussion around the interim plans or strategies to improve traffic flow on Wasatch Boulevard and up Little Cottonwood Canyon. We need a solution now. 

How many of you reading this have driven their car in Zion National Park in the summer months? None of you. Who has sat in a bus traffic jam in Zion National Park in the summer months? None of you. Traffic problems do not occur in the scenic loop of Zion National Park due to a seasonal bus only policy that was put in place in 2000. Twenty years ago! Twenty years ago, they made the decision to invest in a fleet of low emission buses that now moves more than six million passengers per year. They move six million people per year this way. We need to move 2.1 million. If a bus-forward solution can work in Zion National Park, it can work here too. 

Right now, only about 7% of people who use the canyon opt for busing. Why? Because buses sit in the same red snake line that all of us in personal cars do. Currently, there is no advantage or time incentive to taking the bus. That must change. THE BUS MUST WIN in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The fact of the matter is we need UDOT and UTA to collaborate on a traffic flow plan where the bus can always win during the peak winter months in Little Cottonwood Canyon. This would eliminate bottlenecks both in the canyon, which would be closed to personal vehicle traffic (particularly in peak use months), and at the proposed Le Caille Gondola Transit Center, because we could establish multiple intermodal hub transit centers across metro Salt Lake. We could evenly distribute the traffic load rather than draw it into one funnel. Even if the city were to invest in improving Wasatch Boulevard to allow express lanes for the bus traffic to the canyon, the cost would be far more palatable than either of the options on the docket right now.

The Bus Must Win.  A bus moving continuously, uninterrupted up LCC!!

If Zion National Park was able to solve its traffic flow problem more than 20 years ago, I am very optimistic that we can come up with some traffic management proposals (long-term or interim) between now and the decision to spend a proposed $500 million dollars on a Gondola. $500M is a gigantic investment, especially if the majority of our three million Utah residents will never see or use what results.

When I first moved to Salt Lake in 2012, I was blown away that I could drive up to the top of Little Cottonwood to ride pow in just 20 minutes. That doesn’t happen anymore. In a BUS ALWAYS WINS management plan, we can get back to that 20-minute wintertime commute. Let’s move the Little Cottonwood Canyon debate to talk about real solutions for right now and the future and quit wasting all our time on two proposals that are hugely flawed, extremely expensive, and inequitable to Utah residents. THE BUS MUST WIN.

Jeff Roche lives at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon. He is a local business owner, entrepreneur, and dad who enjoys riding pow just like the rest of you.

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