Between crush loads of cars, large avalanches and frequent collisions, Utah State Route 210 can be a nightmare in winter. The 13.5 mile road connects the Salt Lake Valley to Little Cottonwood Canyon’s legendary Alta and Snowbird resorts. Utah’s Department of Transportation is currently studying ways to improve mobility in and out of the canyon with a focus on peak winter demand. Starting with 105 possibilities, the DOT last week narrowed its focus to three options: enhanced bus service, bus service combined with road widening and a hybrid bus/gondola option.
Stretching more than eight miles, the gondola would be among the longest in the world with more stations than any 3S system built to date. A tricable design was chosen for its ideal balance of speed, capacity and tower spacing. The lift would begin at the bottom of LCC, pass through an angle station at Tanners Flat and arrive at Snowbird 24 minutes later. Another 10 minute hop would link the eastern terminus at Alta Ski Area. The premise of the gondola is not to replace the road but rather divert a portion of trips to the air. This would be the second lowest capacity 3S ever built with thirty 30 passenger cabins arriving at stations every two minutes. A modest capacity would help manage costs and allow for towers spaced thousands of feet apart.
The Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola could operate in winds up to 68 miles per hour and strategically placed towers could keep it running when snow slides and crashes close the road. Guests and employees would enjoy an aerial journey through the canyon unlike anything in the United States. The system would cost $393 million, $77 million less than road widening but $110 million more than an enhanced bus solution. The gondola itself would run $240 million while the other $153 million is associated infrastructure such as parking and tolling. The aerial option would cost the least to operate, just $4.5 million per year versus $6.2-9 million annually for the bus options.
The gondola has some disadvantages. Due to the required location of the bottom station, riders would still have to take a 13 minute bus ride from an offsite parking hub before transferring. Buses would offer a one seat, climate controlled ride. With a dedicated transit lane, that trip would average 37 minutes, about 9 minutes faster than the gondola option. With no new roadway capacity, the bus ride would be about the same as the bus plus gondola. Personal cars would still be the fastest option when traffic is moving.
Buses have proven effective in resort towns like the one I live and work in. Nearly 60 percent of winter guests and employees arrive at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort via bus. Offsite parking is free and plentiful while onsite parking is limited and expensive. In the Teton Village example, more than 100 daily trips are offered between the town of Jackson, offsite parking and ski resort by bus. Frequent, all day service has allowed Wyoming 390 to remain two lanes and relatively free of traffic despite a 50 percent increase in skier visits the last two decades. Buses are more adjustable to demand than gondolas, particularly during off peak times.
Little Cottonwood Canyon presents unique challenges because traditional transit does no good when the road is impassable due to winter conditions and avalanches. A gondola offers an opportunity for a completely separate mode in and out of the canyon. It would be a unique and attractive alternative to driving a car.
UDOT will spend the next year developing an environmental impact statement and preferred alternative with a final decision expected by the end of 2021. You can learn more about the process and weigh in at https://littlecottonwoodeis.udot.utah.gov/.