Apr 19, 2023 - News

How western states are trying to solve ski resort traffic

A rendering of a gondola towner in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Image courtesy: Utah Department of Transportation.

State officials and ski resorts in the West are weighing solutions to mitigate crushing traffic up to the slopes, as population growth and a rise in outdoor recreation lure more people to the mountains.

Driving the news: One idea in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon, home to Snowbird and Alta ski resorts, stands out: a proposal to build the world's longest gondola.

  • Meanwhile, officials in Colorado are focused on a bus service as the state revisits the long-running idea of a magnetically powered train.

Why it matters: Population growth in the West, combined with pandemic-charged demand for outdoor pursuits, is overwhelming existing infrastructure.

Details: Utah's proposed $550 million gondola would be 8 miles long and travel from near the foot of the canyon to Snowbird and Alta. A proposed parking structure at the base would fit 2,500 cars.

  • Utah Department of Transportation project manager Josh Van Jura said managing traffic in the area is challenging as it's "one of the most hazardous avalanche canyons in North America."

Context: The gondola proposal was included in UDOT's environmental impact statement last August, which listed five potential solutions to relieve canyon traffic congestion.

Yes, but: The idea faces pushback and criticism from local leaders and conservationists.

  • Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson last year opposed the proposal, saying it would push congestion into Cottonwood Heights.
  • The Salt Lake City Council and Salt Lake County Council each rejected the gondola option through resolutions last year. Though unenforceable, that signals strong opposition.

Zoom out: Ski resorts and outdoor adventure hubs in Colorado and California aren't immune to the "red snake" of tail lights visible during ski season and peak summer vacation times.

  • In Colorado, the congestion along the mountainous Interstate 70 led officials to expand bus service from the Denver metro to five ski areas, including smaller buses that can reach nearby mountain towns.
  • In Lake Tahoe, some resorts have offered shuttle services to alleviate traffic in recent years.
  • Similarly, "a lot of resort communities throughout the West utilize buses," Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons told Axios. But those transit services have not been adequately funded in the Salt Lake Valley, he said.

What they're saying: While Gov. Spencer Cox has expressed backing for the gondola, Fisher said it's "hardly a solution."

  • "They think it's sexy, and it will bring more tourists … We get the allure of the shiny object, but it's just not practical," he said.
  • Snowbird president and general manager Dave Fields, who supports the gondola proposal, called it a safer option for travelers.
  • "Even when the road is not safe to travel, you can still get people up and down the canyon," he said.

The latest: The Utah Legislature appropriated $150 million this year to enhance transportation up the Cottonwood canyons, per Salt Lake City Weekly.

What's next: UDOT is expected to announce its final decision this summer.


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