Gondolas or rapid bus service? UDOT narrows options for Little CottonwoodJul 27, 2021 10:46AM ● By Cassie Goff
The two preferred transportation alternatives were chosen because they met two of UDOT’s goals: mobility and reliability. (The Utah Department of Transportation’s Environmental Impact Study team)
By Cassie Goff | [email protected]
The last few weeks of July in Cottonwood Heights were filled with conversation around the Utah Department of Transportation’s Little Cottonwood Canyon Environmental Impact Study (EIS). UDOT released their Draft EIS on June 25, which identified their two preferred canyon transportation alternatives. They have since been taking public comment.
UDOT initially began the EIS in 2018 in order to look for ways to alleviate traffic congestion within Little Cottonwood Canyon, with the goal of implementing the best one within the upcoming years. During the summer months of 2020, five transportation alternatives were researched and discussed. The five transportation alternatives identified were: enhanced bus service, enhanced bus service with roadway widening, a gondola from the Little Cottonwood Park and Ride, a Gondola from La Caille, and a COG rail from La Caille. On July 20, Project Manager Josh Van Jura presented UDOT’s two preferred alternatives to the Cottonwood Heights City Council.
UDOT’s first preferred transportation alternative is an enhanced bus service with a widened roadway. The enhanced bus service would include two main mobility hubs at the gravel pit (roughly 6900 S. Wasatch Blvd.) and 9400 S. Highland Drive. Busses would leave these hubs every five minutes heading directly up Little Cottonwood Canyon to either Snowbird or Alta. These busses would be able to jump traffic ques and pass personal vehicles. In order to make that possible, part of Wasatch Blvd. would need to be widened to include a dedicated bus lane.
“On certain days, it’s likely to be faster than driving your personal vehicle. What better motivation when you want to go skiing to see a bus passing you going uphill,” Van Jura said.
The enhanced bus service option would cost $510 million initially for startup and construction costs with $11 million annually for operation and maintenance.
This alternative meets UDOT’s mobility goal, even though the visual impact from widening Wasatch Blvd. would be significant and there is potential for water quality concerns.
The second preferred transportation alternative is a gondola from La Caille. The gondola would include a base station north of La Caille (a privately owned restaurant) (roughly 9565 S. Wasatch Blvd.) with 1,500 parking stalls. Gondolas would leave every two minutes to travel through the canyon directly to two stations, one located at Snowbird and the other at Alta. In order to make that possible, 23 towers would need to be built at pivotal points within the canyon.
“Because it operates in that separate alignment above the roadway, if you have a slow-moving vehicle, a slide off, or even avalanche debris on the road, the gondola could still provide a consistent travel time,” Van Jura said.
This gondola is the second most expensive transportation alternative at $592 million initially for startup and construction costs with $7.6 million annually for maintenance and operation.
This alternative meets UDOT’s reliability goal, with low impacts to wildlife and watershed, even though the visual impacts would be most significant.
In response to Van Jura’s presentation, Cottonwood Heights Mayor Michael Peterson quickly inquired about traffic speeds along Wasatch Blvd. and tolling in both Cottonwood Canyons.
“Speed limits are set by the greater UDOT and are controlled by the legislative code and administrative rules,” Van Jura said. “That process is outside of this EIS process.”
Van Jura explained how tolling is included in all of the transportation alternative plans. By 2050, UDOT would like to toll 50 days out of the year. Tolls would cost around $20 to $30 and would be required predominately during the peak morning hours of ski days.
“What we want is to get some of those people either to come up later in the day or, if they want to be there for first chair, get them to choose one of the transit modes,” Van Jura explained.
Councilmember Christine Mikell mentioned how she has been trying to get a meeting with the governor, but there hasn’t been much interest from the Governor’s Office to meet about Wasatch Blvd. and canyon traffic. She asked the Mayor if he could utilize his CWC (Central Wasatch Commission) connections to invite the governor to at last come and take a walk of the area.
Additional concerns voiced by councilmembers included continuity with the city’s Wasatch Blvd. Master Plan, crossing Wasatch Blvd., neighborhood access, impacts of potential parking structures, scaling of implementation, non-response from the governor’s office, and various environmental and sustainability concerns including snowsheds. City Manager Tim Tingey asked the councilmembers to send their concerns to be compiled and brought back for discussion during the Aug. 17 council meeting.
After discussion, Cottonwood Heights will draft a formal statement to submit to UDOT before Sept. 3, in coordination with the EIS public comment session Community and Economic Development Director Mike Johnson recommended “it would be best if we identify a preference of one over the other and provide some rational for that decision.” (The council seems to be leaning in support of the enhanced bus service alternative over the gondola.)
UDOT will continue receiving public comments until Sept. 3, as they have extended their initial 45-day public comment period to a 70-day public comment period. So far, they have received over 3,500 comments.
Two public hearings were held to gather public comment further, one in-person on July 13 and one virtually on July 20. Over 350 people attended the in-person public hearing. “I was very pleased with the turnout. There was a lot of involvement from the community,” Van Jura said.
After Sept. 3, UDOT plans to respond to all comments publicly. They will work on revising their draft EIS plan throughout the autumn months to have a conclusion by winter. Van Jura is aiming to have the final EIS plan completed before March, preferably January 2022.
The project’s purpose remains “to substantially improve transportation-related safety, reliability and mobility on S.R. 210 from Fort Union Blvd. through the Town of Alta for all users on S.R. 210.”
This article provides a quick overview of the material found within the over 55 documents included in the draft EIS materials, including a 28-page executive summary, seven interactive maps, and over five hours of presentations and public comments from public hearings. For a comprehensive look at the Draft EIS, or for more information: visit the UDOT’s EIS webpage at www.LittleCottonwoodEIS.udot.utah.gov.
Hard copies of the Draft EIS have been made available at various locations throughout the valley. In Cottonwood Heights, hard copies can be found at Whitmore Library (2197 Fort Union Blvd.) or Cottonwood Heights City Hall (2277 Bengal Blvd.).
To submit comments (before Sept. 3) visit the link above, send an email comment to [email protected], call UDOT at 801-200-3465, or write them a letter directed to: Little Cottonwood Canyon EISc/o HDR; 2825 E Cottonwood Parkway, Suite 200; Cottonwood Heights, UT 84121.