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Little Cottonwood Canyon Boulders Threatened by Infrastructure Plan: Hundreds of Problems May Disappear

To alleviate 30-ish days of extreme ski traffic each year, the Utah Department of Transportation is deciding between two $500 million infrastructure projects, both of which would destroy priceless Utah boulders. Make your voice heard now.

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The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is weighing two proposals to address winter ski traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon. One is to build the world’s longest gondola. The other is to widen the road for bus-only shoulder lanes. Regardless of which proposal UDOT ends up delivering to the legislature, hundreds of iconic boulder problems are likely to be demolished. 

The Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SCLA), a local climbing access advocacy group, is advocating for climbers to submit comments to UDOT in favor of improved bussing infrastructure. Though it’s not ideal, they consider bussing a more flexible option than the gondola, therefore more likely to preserve the canyon’s ambience for all users. 

The public comment period closes on September 3rd. You can find more information about how to make your voice heard on the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance website.

The problem: that red snake of taillights 

The ski resorts at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon—Alta and Snowbird—sit at the terminal end of SR-210, a winding, two-lane road famous for avalanches and traffic. The travel time from Alta to SLC can vary from less than an hour in good, summer conditions to more than five hours on snowy weekend afternoons. UDOT’s two plans, one of which they will forward to the legislature after the public comment period, are designed to alleviate this traffic.

The gondola plan

The gondola, which if completed would beat out Serbia’s nine-kilometer Zlatibor Gold Gondola as the longest in the world, would pick passengers up at an 1,800-car parking garage at the canyon’s mouth, ferry them eight miles through the skies of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and deliver them to Snowbird and Alta.

According to Gondola Works, a coalition of pro-Gondola businesses and interest groups, roughly 7,000 cars travel in and out of Little Cottonwood Canyon per day on peak weekend days in snow season, in the process producing some 70 tons of carbon. The gondola would, they say, cut that traffic significantly and be able to transport some 3,600 people per hour at peak capacity. It would also be able to operate in most weather conditions. 

Excluding traffic, parking, and lines, a trip from the gondola’s base at La Caille to Alta at the top of Cottonwood Canyon would take 36 minutes. Gondola Works also argues that the Gondola would produce 300% less CO2 than the busses, cutting down “in-canyon emissions by as much as 56%.” 

Estimated cost for the gondola project: $592 million dollars

The bussing and road widening plan

At the moment, the busses that operate on UT-210 are subject to the same lanes and traffic as everyone else. But as an alternative to the gondola option, UDOT is considering widening the road and installing new bus-only lanes on the sides. This would allow busses to float effortlessly past the gridlocked car traffic, which would, in theory, incentivize skiers to use them instead of driving their own vehicles.

The project calls for investments in road construction, bussing infrastructure, and the construction of a gigantic “mobility hub”—a marketing term for “parking garage”—at the base of the canyon. 

Estimated costs for road expansion and bussing: $510 million. 

Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah Photo: Nick Pedersen / Getty Images

What kind of impacts will the projects have on the boulders?

Both proposals will destroy boulder problems, though we still lack a complete dossier of at-risk boulders at this time. The SLCA estimates that 64 independent boulders and 273 boulder problems will be destroyed. 

Also at risk are the access points for a number of popular areas, since UDOT’s proposed parking improvements would in fact reduce parking at places like Gate Buttress, Grit Mill, and the Lower Cottonwood Canyon Park and Ride. 

The SLCA believes that UDOT has yet to fully consider less impactful alternatives, like simply expanding bussing service while instituting tolls and other traffic mitigation efforts.

A taxpayer subsidy to the ski resorts

As a state capitol project, construction costs for either plan will be funded by Utah taxpayers—which arguably amounts to a subsidy to the ski resorts.

This is the big problems with the way UDOT has conducted this process. By defining a narrow goal—to reduce traffic during ski season—UDOT has essentially sidestepped the need to assess Little Cottonwood Canyon’s value to other users. It has also allowed UDOT to avoid investigating alternative traffic-mitigation measures like simply adding more electric busses and tolls. (To read more about the technicalities involved here, check out an op-ed on this subject that David Carter, a professor of public policy at the University of Utah, published in the Salt Lake Tribute.)

Neither the gondola or the busses will service backcountry skiers. Nor will they ferry hikers to any of the canyon’s many trailheads. Nor will they drop climbers off at the boulders. Instead, both plans are designed to service the in-bounds ski community at the expense of the canyon’s dispersed users, who may soon find their experiences in Little Cottonwood Canyon fundamentally changed by a looming gondola or a shrieking four-lane road. The construction of gondola towers or the widening of the road will also have negative impacts on the surface and groundwater quality in the canyon, which is an important part of Salt Lake City’s water resource. And it’s not clear that either proposal will actually serve as long-term solutions to the canyon’s traffic problem since the increased carrying capacity that bring to the canyon will also incentivize the up-valley resorts to continue expanding.

Julia Geisler, the Executive Director of the SLCA, says, “Less destructive options exist—options that would be more equitable for dispersed recreators and other users that will not come at the expense of the canyon’s beautiful landscape. Transportation infrastructure that physically and permanently alters the canyon should only be considered after less impactful options have been implemented and shown to be ineffective. Before they begin making permanent changes to the canyon’s landscape, we’d like to see UDOT try to expand electric bus service—service that includes dispersed recreation transit needs—and couple it with tolling and other traffic mitigation tactics.”

A proving ground

The SLCA recently held a press conference featuring Olympic Silver Medalist Nathaniel Coleman, who has frequented Little Cottonwood Canyon throughout his climbing career. The fact that some of these timeworn classics might disappear is disturbing to him.

“Copperhead (V10) was a milestone in my climbing progression,” he writes on the SLCA website. “It and many other boulders motivated me to improve my climbing, and taught me skills I still rely on in competition to this day. How to focus on the positive aspects of failing. How to question my assumptions and open my mind to a creative solution. Most importantly, how to trust my feet. These roadside boulders are incredibly special to me and many other climbers around the country. They are irreplaceable.”

Many of the boulders—among them the canyon’s hardest boulder and, at least at present, most famous: Grand Illusion, V16—will not be directly effected by the plans. Nor will the thousands of routes on the canyon’s cliffs. But rather than blue skies and mountain views, climbers may soon look out at gigantic gondola, whose cable will be supported by piers accessible by new maintenance roads.

Meanwhile several hundred problems, including this classic off-width, are likely to be destroyed:

 

So we’ve got two bad choices?

Sort of. For procedural reasons, there are, at the moment, only two proposals under consideration. Regardless of how little you like them, UDOT will be choosing one of these two options after the public comment period ends on September 3rd. The proposal will then, in all likelihood, go to the legislature for funding.

Though they would have preferred UDOT to consider less-impactful options, the SLCA is mustering climbers to support bussing—but to request no additional lanes be added. Their reasoning: the gondola solution, though elegant from an emissions standpoint, is an all-or-nothing commitment, far less flexible than, say, improving the limited bus infrastructure and incentivizing skiers to use those busses.

The flexibility of the bussing plan is the critical distinction between the two proposals, according to the SLCA. Increased bussing would allow for flexible seasonal demand, serve dispersed recreation throughout the canyon, and also transport skiers to the top of the canyon. And in the absence of roadway widening, the plan would not require the demolition of any boulders.

The best case scenario, from a climbing perspective, is that the road widening and bussing initiatives gets proposed to the legislature, but that the legislature—which chooses whether and how to fund the project—compels UDOT to take a less drastic approach to traffic mitigation. The legislature’s role will be further informed by public input, which is why the SLCA wants you to make yourself heard.

Instead of just expanding the road, the SLCA hopes UDOT will first try adding busses and incentivizing bus use by adding tolls. If they do eventually decide to add lanes, they hope UDOT will work with the canyon’s other stakeholders to account for the watershed and the experience of other users.

What you can do?

You can submit comments to both UDOT and, if you’re a citizen of Utah, your elected officials.

You can find more information about how to do this here.

Note: It’s important to contact both parties, since they’re working at different stages of this process. UDOT is choosing between the two options; then the legislature will choose whether to fund UDOT’s proposal.

The public comment period for UDOT ends on September 3rd. Make your voice heard before then.

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