Utah’s solution to ski traffic snarl? Build the world’s longest gondola : NPR
People come from all over the world to ski Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon and its bucket list Alta resort, a fixture in skiing tradition since 1939.
“Oh my gosh the terrain here is just absolutely huge,” says Kate Rath.
Rath and fellow skier Ali Scheifley are standing on Alta’s razor-thin High Traverse, choosing their line, about to descend the steep and deep Greeley Bowl.
“We are both ripping some new skis today and we are actually very happy,” Scheifley says, beaming.
This little dust of Narnia exists not even 10 miles above the Salt Lake valley. These high alpine peaks and cliffs often get the deepest snow in the world, this winter is no exception – Alta reported near 450 inches so far this season.
The achievement is good, assuming, that is, you can easily get up here.
Skiing is exploding in popularity
Skiing is definitely having its moment in America.
While just 10 years ago many in the industry were wringing their hands at the prediction that their core sports clientele would “gray,” it seems the exact opposite has happened. Last year, the industry raked in billions and resorts from Colorado to California reported continued increases in ticket and pass sales, especially as the pandemic brought more interest in outdoor recreation.
Utah, a state long famous for its fluffy – and abundant – dust, could easily be labeled as the epicenter of the explosion. Last year was a dry year and yet its resorts — including Alta — set records for skier visits.
But there is a downside to success. Skiing has become so popular that getting to resorts from cities like Denver or Sacramento or Salt Lake City can often mean sitting in traffic hours before. In Utah, where tourism brochures used to boast that skiers could land at Salt Lake International and be on the slopes within an hour, the news these days is dominated by travel stories of long hours to the resorts in the nearby canyons.
The state’s out-of-the-box plan to fix this? A proposed $550 million gondola connecting the Salt Lake valley with Alta and abutting Snowbird. It’s sparking all sorts of debate, even about the future of skiing in a warmer world.
The “Red Snake” becomes very familiar
A few thousand feet below the stunning vista of Alta’s High Traverse, near the bottom of Little Cottonwood canyon, is where the dreaded “red snake” may come into view. That’s what the locals call the seemingly endless line of thousands of red tail lights idling along the 210 route.
On a dusty day, or a busy weekend, it can sometimes take more than three hours just to travel the windy, two-lane, 8-mile road.
“Where we live, we couldn’t go out on the street,” says Kurt Reichelt, recalling a recent holiday weekend that coincided with major storms. “Everybody and their brother was trying to get up here.”
Reichelt and his friend Brian Cardello, who is retired and originally from Stowe, Vermont, stopped trying to ski those days.
“We take the bus and while we are waiting, we see so many cars with single drivers, that is, no one is carpooling,” he added.
Utah’s normally efficient public bus system is currently crippled by a reported driver shortage. It is clear that some people are giving up waiting for buses that either run less often or stop stopping at certain park-and-rides near the canyon entrance.
“There are too many people,” says Cardello. “And it’s not [just] here everywhere.”
Many pass the season discount fault like the Icon, which is good at Alta and Snowbird, or the Epic from Vail Resorts, which allow skiers to bounce easily from one resort to another, and also run the best interstate snow.
A push for a gondola as a green alternative to driving
In the past 20 years, the number of skiers visiting Utah resorts has nearly doubled, from 3 million to now close to 6 million, according to Ski Utahindustry trade group.
“We have the same infrastructure, the same road that we had 20 years ago,” says Mike Maughan, Alta’s general manager.
And in a state that relies heavily on ski tourism — the industry brought in close to $1.4 billion last year — there is pressure to fix the mess in the canyon.
Enter the gondola, which the Utah Department of Transportation estimates moves roughly the same number of skiers and hikers up Little Cottonwood in an hour — a thousand — as the road does in a rare day without traffic.
“The gondola will travel at a constant speed,” says Maughan. “So when the road surface gets slick, it won’t slow down because it’s snow.”
The state preferred plan — according to a recent environmental impact study — would involve attaching a cable to towers 260 feet above the road, with gondola cabins attached that could hold 35 skiers. Cabs would leave every two minutes from the mouth of the canyon, where a large parking structure and terminal would need to be built.
The estimated cost is listed at $550 million, although it is widely believed that number will increase if construction moves forward.
“It’s a great idea,” says Maughan, who thinks it would be one of the longest gondolas ever built in the world.
Opponents call it a “two-ramps freeway”
Everyone agrees that the current traffic situation is unworkable. But it is also clear that building a massive new piece of infrastructure in today’s polarized America will not be easy. So far there seems to be a lot of local opposition.
Early in the morning before work, Matt Palmer was getting into his car after some “dawn patrol” rounds in the country. It was a park-and-ride at the mouth of the canyon where bus service was temporarily suspended.
“I see it as a revenue builder, a little gold star for the government to say let’s put this gondola up and bring in even more tourists,” says Palmer.
Further north at a bus stop along Wasatch Blvd., skier Jake Nemmits says getting to the resorts on big powder he says is rough.
But a gondola?
“I think it’s kinda farcical when in the meantime we can just finance a lot more of the ski bus and maybe look for another lane,” he says.
Last fall, after the state formally announced its preferred alternative, Salt Lake’s city and county councils of government both passed resolutions against gondola. County councilman Jim Bradley, a longtime environmentalist, is pushing the state to improve its existing bus service with dedicated bus lanes and EV buses. He also supports stricter toll and traction controls, especially for rental cars which on some days account for half the vehicle’s load.
These are more practical and sustainable, says Bradley, and a gondola in his opinion would threaten the pristine nature of the canyon.
“We don’t know how long this snow will last in our Wasatch hills,” he says. “With climate change, which is real, we can have good days and bad, good years and bad years. and we can’t need the capacity that they claim a gondola can provide.”
Opponents of the gondola say building it would be like building a highway with only two ramps for two private ski resorts.
A desperate plea to do something
Back at Alta, GM Mike Maughan bristled at that characterization. He says there are more than 100 private businesses – and dozens of homes and condos – in Little Cottonwood. Not just Alta and the Snowbird resorts. Proponents of the gondola are also quick to point out that the canyons are already developed with a large amount of infrastructure, including the Snowbird tram and luxury resorts.
While the gondola certainly helps private resorts, Maughan says there is a clear public benefit as well. It would move more people and be much cleaner than what exists now, the idling traffic.
“It’s like any other public works across the nation, whether it’s a bike trail in a rural community or a tunnel somewhere,” says Maughan. “Only certain people use those public improvements but they are paid for by everyone.”
Maughan says Alta has been pushing for more buses and improved service for years. A new parking reservation system helped control the crowd a little but not enough. (Snowbird nearby down the canyon does not require reservations).
The state’s final decision on the gondola is expected later this winter.