Sexy Gondola or Humble Bus?

Sexy Gondola or Humble Bus?

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) studied the traffic problem in Little Cottonwood Canyon and settled on a practical option: to expand State Route 210 by one lane and buy a bunch of buses to run in the dedicated lane during peak traffic times. During non-peak traffic times, the additional roadway would provide a much better thoroughfare for pedestrians and cyclists than exists today.

This is not a perfect approach and by no means an outright win for any one constituency, but it is roughly what people refer to as the “Utah Way:” a fairly mundane, civic-minded option, centered in problem-solving. Nobody will be remembered for implementing this option, but more people will gain use of the canyon.

Unfortunately, as you might already know, UDOT has chosen an additional option to the snoozefest bus approach. This additional option involves building a gondola (the “Gondola”) that starts at La Caille Restaurant in Sandy and deposits riders at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon for easy access to Alta and Snowbird resorts.

The Gondola option would include no further expansion of State Route 210, instead pouring $260 million (not including adding some public transport infrastructure) into building the gondola itself. Barring in-canyon shuttles, it will service only the two ski resorts at the top of the canyon, not the dozens of other spots throughout the canyon where people take advantage of access to public lands, rock climbing, camping, hiking, trail running, taking pictures, staring at rocks, and thinking about the impossible grandeur we enjoy minutes from suburbia.

We should pause for a moment and consider how strange a pair these two proposals are.

UDOT narrowing its options to either the bus/lane expansion or the Gondola is a bit like narrowing your post-high-school options to either an accounting major at the University of Utah or joining the circus. It is like narrowing your housing choices down to either a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment in Midvale or the windmill at the end of Mulligan's mini golf course. We are being tempted by flights of fancy.

Alta and Snowbird are fans of the Gondola. If you ran these resorts, how could you not be? The prospect of someone else providing door-to-door service from Sandy to the resort is irresistible. It solves their problem in full. They can accommodate more people on the mountain than their parking lots currently allow.

The Gondola also really solves the would-be gondola developers’ problem: they have options on some very valuable real estate, a variety of financial interests for future monetization, and a potentially lucrative service contract. And they have the problem of (probably) not having the financial wherewithal to get this thing built without a lot of public financing.

As it happens, the Gondola is not the only wild option being thrown out in the State right now. We have a recently revived Utah Lake islands proposal called Arches Utah Lake, the proponents of which suggest that the best way to save Utah Lake is to build large islands in the lake that are shaped like other parts of Utah.

The problems with Cottonwood Canyons (traffic, infrastructure issues) and with Utah Lake (pollution, toxic algae, etc.) are themselves real. Yet the Gondola Option and Arches Utah Lake propose answers to very different questions than the original problem.

The Arches Utah Lake proposal answers the question “What if we built and then developed islands in the middle of Utah Lake?” This is a very attractive question for a real estate development group, albeit less attractive to ecologists, engineers, and environmental scientists who hate the idea.

The Gondola Option principally answers the question “What would tourists enjoy the most when they come to visit Utah?” It also answers the related question “What would bring the highest value to Snowbird and Alta?” And it answers the question “What would maximize the value of the land in and around La Caille?”

These are very different questions from the core concern: what is best for mitigating traffic in the canyon and improving its use and enjoyment in the coming years?

There is no doubt that for those who could afford it (no ticket price is established yet—$10 per person? $20? $30?) the experience itself would be memorable. We’d surely feature the gondola in tourist videos.

It is fair to say that a soaring gondola is more exciting than a humble bus carrying 50 people and all of their gear on time, every 10 minutes. The bus is too simple. It’s too affordable, too accessible, too…appropriate.

The bus and lane expansion option creates a way to improve traffic. It allows us to service a wider range of users in the canyon—not just folks headed to the top but those who use trailheads and campgrounds further down (adding stops becomes straightforward once the infrastructure is there). It provides flexibility in coming years—using the lane for more non-vehicular uses and increasing the frequency of buses as needed.

At the same time, the bus approach isn’t without impact. The proposal to widen the road means years of construction. And we have seen time and again how adding lanes of traffic alone does little to alleviate traffic, but simply attracts more cars. We drive until it is too painful to drive, or until someone restricts our access in favor of other options.

That’s the real elephant in the room: our insistence on leaving car traffic at the center of the approach to canyon travel and merely filling in the gaps with public transportation options. Treating public transportation as a luxury rather than the starting point for travel opens the door to upscale, whimsical approaches like the gondola.

I suspect UDOT will choose the bus option. We tend to make prudent decisions when they matter, however incrementally. For all its drawbacks and limitations, the bus option would be a meaningful step to make the bus a better choice than cars on high-traffic days.

Of course the bus approach will be very boring, but the already world-class canyon doesn’t need a Gondola to be spectacular.