Here’s what it would cost to ride the Little Cottonwood Canyon Gondola
ALTA, Utah — If Utah wants skier John Persons to ride a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon, it’s gotta be free.
“So I could take it, but I probably wouldn’t,” Persons said with a laugh.
“We all try to ski every day,” said Carly Smith. “It would be difficult to pay a lot of money.”
Smith and Persons were part of a group that drove up the canyon to go backcountry skiing near the town of Alta on a recent weekday. Skiers are the group that would be served by the proposal made this summer by the Utah Department of Transportation.
He wants to build a gondola – the longest in the world – 8 miles to Little Cottonwood Canyon. The gondola would pick up passengers at the mouth of the canyon and drop them off at Snowbird and Alta ski resorts.
One thing was not in the proposal: how much would a ticket to go up in the gondola cost?
The answer has almost as many moving parts as a gondola itself.
The purpose of a gondola would be to reduce automobile traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The current route up the canyon is mostly just two lanes covered by avalanches in winter. The new snow is also bringing skiers in cars that have been known to cause traffic jams for miles.
As part of its gondola proposal, the UDOT wants to install tolls on cars in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“Our initial studies show the toll will likely be in that $25-$30 range,” said Josh Van Jura, project manager for UDOT’s Little Cottonwood Canyon environmental impact statement.
“The gondola fare should be significantly lower than the toll for road users,” Van Jura said.
UDOT estimates the cost of the gondola project itself at $550 million in construction costs and then an additional $7 million in annual operating and maintenance costs.
Craig Heimark volunteers as treasurer for the city of Alta and uses the numbers from UDOT to calculate what the cost per passenger would be.
“I ran a few different scenarios on the cost side,” he said.
Heimark assumed that during ski season the gondola would be full uphill in the morning and downhill in the afternoon.
“I came up with what I think was the lowest possible cost of around $90” per runner, Heimark said.
But he is skeptical of UDOT’s construction and operating estimates – which are based on 2020 data – or that the gondola would be full.
“With my expected level of ridership, it would be more like $200 per passenger,” Heimark said.
The UDOT would then have to decide on the share it passes on to the tariffs. Anything left over would be picked up by taxpayers.
Heimark acknowledges that infrastructure projects rarely pay off, but says a Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola wouldn’t benefit most people — just the two ski resorts.
“So spend [$550 million] taxpayers’ money to subsidize two companies seems deeply unfair to me,” Heimark said.
He is in favor of increasing bus service to reduce traffic.
Greg Macfarlane is an assistant professor of civil engineering at Brigham Young University who has studied the costs and benefits of public transportation. He said that in 2019, the Utah Transit Authority, for example, recovered 16% of its costs from fares.
That same year, the then mayor of Alta offered a per-passenger estimate of $111.
Using these numbers, Macfarlane proposed what might be called “the daily cost of using the gondola would be about $17 instead of $111”.
This would be cheaper than the proposed car tolls, but not necessarily more economical. Just two people in a car could drive cheaper and travel faster.
UDOT estimates that a gondola ride would take 55 minutes. Traveling by car? Thirty-eight minutes.
“I don’t want to pay anything, to be honest,” said Calvin Giddings, another off-piste skier.
“The gondola won’t stop halfway through the backcountry spots,” Persons pointed out, “that’s where we ski.”
“I prefer to take the bus,” said Will Ambler, who skied with Giddings, Persons and Smith. “I usually take the bus.”
It will be up to the Utah Legislature to decide whether to fund and build the gondola. UDOT recently released the latest set of public comments it has received on the project.
The majority was opposed to the gondola.