snowy road wasatch mountains
Snowy road in Wasatch Mountains, Utah; (photo/ Walla Haus Visual Media via Shutterstock)

‘Record-Breaking’ Public Response Delays Contested Utah Gondola

The Utah Department of Transportation’s highly publicized initiative to relieve traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon garnered a lot of attention. But recently, public participation threw a wrench in the works.

The winding two-lane road in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon will remain unchanged — at least for now. That’s because a deluge of public comments halted progress on a construction project that would alter the roadway in an attempt to alleviate traffic in the canyon.

Little Cottonwood Road Project Background

Back in August 2021, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) said it was in the final stages of approving one of two transportation plans for the canyon road.

The 10-mile segment of S.R. 210 winds into the Wasatch Mountains just east of Salt Lake City. In response to increasing traffic, UDOT planned to add bus lanes or a massive gondola along its entire length.

The project sought to give skiers better access to Alta and Snowbird resorts at the top of the road. UDOT collected public comments on the two proposals through Sept. 3 last year.

Recently, UDOT told Deseret News that over 14,000 responses poured in during a 30-day public comment period in 2021. Project manager Josh Van Jura said he’d read at least that many comments and confirmed that it was a record for the department.

“I think that number really speaks to how much passion there is around Little Cottonwood Canyon,” he said.

Record Comments Delay Project

The sheer volume caused UDOT to take a half step back from its plans. Now, its website says it will decide on a “single preferred alternative” by late 2022 or early 2023 at the latest.

“The reason we’re extending the schedule is mainly due to the great public participation we’ve had in helping us make sure that we have an accurate and complete document,” Van Jura said.

He expressed that the chances of finalizing the project before or after the end of 2022 are “equal.”

Previously, UDOT said it was “optimistic” about releasing a recommendation this month. However, spokesman John Gleason told the department might push it back to ensure “a thorough process,” noting that it was “carefully examining every issue.”

Whenever UDOT does make its decision, it will go to the Utah State Legislature for funding. The legislature will likely take it up in 2023 but hasn’t set a date for its first session of the year.

As of now, it looks like the project is on its way to completion. Except for one detail: another 30-day public review period, set for summer 2022 after UDOT finalizes its Environmental Impact Statement.

Cost, Invasiveness, and Public Concern

Either option would cost over $500 million out of taxpayers’ pockets. Apart from any residents who could cut down on ski trip windshield time, it appeared that the two resorts would be the initiative’s primary benefactors.

Public opinion met that initiative in its tracks. Each option would permanently alter Little Cottonwood Canyon, which is relatively unspoiled for now, except for the road and various small pullouts along the way. And the gondola would require substantial footings at multiple locations alongside the road.

That alarmed climbers, who asserted it would destroy a significant amount of the canyon’s bouldering.

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Sam Anderson

Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.