A Gondola is the Wrong Choice for Little Cottonwood
I have vivid memories from childhood of driving up Little Cottonwood Canyon and entering a new, magical world filled with rustling leaves, glistening rocks, abundant birdsong, and fresh air that made me feel alive. As I’ve gotten older, the mysterious wonderland has grown into a familiar playground where I’ve learned to ski, mountain bike, rock climb, and tackle the impressive peaks.
Though many people like myself enjoy recreating in Little Cottonwood Canyon year-round, its most consistently popular season is the winter. Ski resorts like Alta and Snowbird draw both locals and tourists to their world-class runs. Unfortunately, a common sight while driving up the canyon is a never-ending line of cars inching up the road, all eager to hit the sparkly slopes. If timed improperly, a good snow day can have you waiting two or three hours to get to a parking lot, which may be full anyway.
These widespread problems have sent legislators into a planning frenzy the past few years trying to come up with a solution to this ever-growing problem. One of the most talked-about and controversial plans is to build an 8-mile long, 60-foot-tall, $590 million gondola up the gullet of the scenic canyon. This plan admittedly has its perks, including less traffic directly on the roads and reduced avalanche danger, but it is not worth mauling the landscape when less invasive methods of traffic control have not even been tested.
Another idea, hailed by many, and which I hope will end up being the plan of action, is an expansion of the canyon bus system. The existing system is outdated, slow, and prone to malfunctions. However, if the buses are improved and the road widened, as is detailed in the most recent UDOT (Utah Dept. of Transportation) plan, they could be a smart solution that moves organically with the needs of the canyon and the city.
An improved bus service would be more cost-effective than a gondola. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, updating the bus system and potentially widening the road in some places would come to about $510 million up front, compared to $592 million for the gondola. Proponents of the gondola argue that this increased cost would be worth it because it would increase tourism to the canyon, drawing in more income over time. But if you talk to almost anyone who enjoys Little Cottonwood Canyon, barring the stakeholders who only want to increase their personal profit, they will tell you that the last thing we want in LCC is more tourism. Our beloved canyon is already crowded, and drawing an entirely new client base solely to ride the gondola sounds like a nightmare.
A more functional bus service, on the other hand, will help those who would already be coming into the canyon without creating a new tourist attraction in the fragile canyon ecosystem. Buses are the right choice for Little Cottonwood Canyon because in an ever-changing environment, humans must be prepared to adapt our systems. While construction of a gondola would be very permanent, putting more buses on the road does not have to be.
As tragic as it may seem, nothing is permanent. The snow at Alta and Snowbird is not permanent. The ski industry is not permanent, so neither is the traffic caused by it. Why would we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure that may be without a purpose in just a few decades? This is not to say that the situation is hopeless, only that Salt Lake City should not develop and capitalize to the very maximum on some of our most precious natural areas. People should be able to use them and enjoy them, but they have a carrying capacity that should not be ignored if we hope to protect the wider canyon ecosystem.
Expanding the bus system in Little Cottonwood Canyon is a decision that respects this carrying capacity because it will use most of an existing road, can expand or contract depending on traffic conditions, and does not create an additional tourist industry that the canyon cannot handle. Nothing is finalized yet, but based on recent elections it is likely that we’ll be seeing a shiny new bus fleet up LCC in the next few years.
Emma Johnson is a senior at Highland High School in Salt Lake City. She runs cross country & track, is editor of the Highland Rambler student newspaper, and plays the violin. Emma has worked on several environmental activism projects including the SLCSD Clean Energy Campaign and UYES. In the future, she hopes to find ways to use her writing in conjunction with her passion for the environment.