The Salt Lake County Council Barely Passes a Motion Against the Little Cottonwood Gondola

The Salt Lake County Council adopted a resolution on Tuesday condemning the recently proposed gondola for Little Cottonwood Canyon and called for “commonsense” transit alternatives after a tumultuous public comment process.

The resolution, which claims the years-long study by the Utah Department of Transportation “failed to adequately and effectively consider alternate transportation modes” in Little Cottonwood Canyon, expresses what a few Salt Lake County politicians have been advocating for the past year: before spending more than $500 million on the world’s longest gondola, look at cheaper, less intrusive alternatives first.

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Following a protracted discussion, the resolution was approved 5-4 with council members Dave Alvord, Aimee Winder Newton, Steve Debry, and Dea Theodore voting against it. Despite having little influence over the project, some Council members claimed on Tuesday that the resolution serves as a warning to state legislators, who will ultimately determine whether or not to support the gondola.

Councilwoman Ann Granato said, “I would strongly, strongly, strongly push UDOT and the state Legislature to take note of what the people are saying. According to Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw, “This council does not have an up or down vote on the manner this gondola is built.” But when is it appropriate to speak up?

Several locally elected politicians took the stage during the public comment time. Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski mentioned a recent survey that suggested the majority of Sandy residents were opposed to the proposal. After five members of the Sandy City Council wrote a letter to the county urging them not to approve the resolution, Zoltanski made his statement.

Users of the canyon, ranging in age from their early teens to late 70s, expressed their opposition to the gondola and support for the resolution, citing various reasons including the cost of construction, a possible threat to the watershed, special interests supporting the project, equity concerns, carrying capacity of the canyon, or some combination of all five.

Co-founder of Students for the Wasatch Emily Pitsch remarked, “Spending $1 billion on this tourist attraction in a canyon that is already a tourist draw is an atrocious use of our money.” Dillon Bush of Salt Lake City stated, “Not everyone skis, and not everyone skis at Alta and Snowbird.” There is canyon access that could be reached by gondola, but that isn’t the solution.

According to Carl Fisher, executive director of Save our Canyons, “UDOT wrote its purpose and necessity statement so narrowly that it eliminated the remedies (mentioned in the resolution). It only stops at two ski resorts, Snowbird and Alta, “will eliminate just 30% of vehicular traffic” from the route, requires 22 “high-rise hotel-sized” buildings in the canyon, and “has limited flexibility to pivot in the event of changing circumstances.”

The resolution states that the Salt Lake County Council and Mayor “recommend that the Gondola Alternative be eliminated from consideration in the final (record of decision) and that UDOT adopts the Common-Sense Solutions Approach, which is a more fiscally responsible and environmentally sound option.”

The discussion is divisive. After Chris McCandless, a supporter of the gondola spoke to the council on Tuesday, a number of those present booed him, prompting County Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham to yell “order.” Alvord’s assumption that the gondola would ultimately save taxpayer money was ridiculed by others.

As a result of a piece of land close to the exclusive La Caille restaurant, UDOT suggested the gondola B option on August 31. Now, the general public has until October 17 to make a comment. After more consideration, UDOT will make its final suggestion by the winter of 2020–2023.

Although the government announced it will now combine parking lots allocated in the original plan, the project’s capital expenses will drop to $550 million from its initial $592 million estimate. The cost is a significant deterrent, as was emphasised on Tuesday. The resolution states that the burden will fall on taxpayers, but UDOT stated that it is still unsure about the funding sources.

It may come from the state, the federal government, the private sector, or a mix of all three. “How could $1 billion best be used? Councilman Richard Snelgrove suggested eliminating the sales tax on food, claiming that the state should instead cover the cost of all public transportation during the winter or enhance transportation on the county’s western edge.

Why not just keep it in your pocket? That’s an original thought,” he replied. The alternative was to improve public transit, which would have required widening the route and increasing the frequency of the ski buses. This ambitious project would have cost $550 million and required extensive work in the canyon.

Some Salt Lake County political leaders, including Mayor Jenny Wilson, Councilmen Jim Bradley, and Richard Snelgrove, felt that neither option was the best choice and encouraged UDOT to take “common sense” ideas into consideration.

According to the resolution, UDOT should have looked more closely at tunnelling technology, electric or other environmentally friendly buses, and “more practical and less intrusive transportation strategies, such as parking management technologies and policies, multi-passenger vehicle incentives, traction device requirements, and regionally situated mobility hubs.”

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