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Utah's solution to ski traffic snarl? Build the world's longest gondola

Busses connecting skiers to resorts in Utah's famous Big and Little Cottonwood canyons have been severely cut back due to driver shortages.
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Busses connecting skiers to resorts in Utah's famous Big and Little Cottonwood canyons have been severely cut back due to driver shortages.

People come from all around the world to ski Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon and its bucket list resort Alta, a fixture in skiing lore since 1939.

"Oh my gosh the terrain here is just absolutely massive," says Kate Rath.

Rath and fellow skier Ali Scheifley are standing on Alta's razor thin High Traverse, choosing their line, about to plunge down the steep and deep Greeley Bowl.

"We're both ripping some new skis today and we're actually very pleased," Scheifley says, beaming.

This little powder Narnia exists not even 10 miles up from the Salt Lake valley. These high alpine peaks and cliffs often get the deepest snow in the world, this winter is no exception - Alta has reported close to 450 inches so far this season.

The getting is good, assuming, that is, you can easily get up here.

Ali Scheifley (left) and Kate Rath (right), visiting Alta from Colorado, stand on the resort's famous High Traverse.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Ali Scheifley (left) and Kate Rath (right), visiting Alta from Colorado, stand on the resort's famous High Traverse.

Skiing is exploding in popularity

Skiing is definitely having its moment in America.

Whereas just 10 years ago many in the industry were hand-wringing over predictions that their sport's main clientele was "graying out," the exact opposite appears to have happened. Last year, the industry raked in billions and resorts from Colorado to California reported continued increases in ticket and pass sales, especially as the pandemic brought more interest in outdoor recreation.

Utah, a state long famous for its fluffy — and abundant — powder, could easily be labeled the epicenter of the boom. Last year was a drought year and still its resorts — including Alta — set records for skier visits.

But there's a downside to success. Skiing has become so popular that getting to resorts from cities like Denver or Sacramento or Salt Lake City can often mean sitting in hours of gridlock traffic. In Utah, where tourism brochures used to brag that skiers could land at Salt Lake International and be on the slopes within an hour, the news these days is dominated by stories of hours-long commutes to the resorts in the nearby canyons.

The state's out-of-the-box plan to fix that? A proposed $550 million gondola linking the Salt Lake valley to Alta and adjoining Snowbird. It's igniting all sorts of debate, even about the future of skiing in a warmer world.

The notorious "red snake" of tail lights in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
The notorious "red snake" of tail lights in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The "Red Snake" becomes grimly familiar

A few thousand feet below the stunning vistas of Alta's High Traverse, near the bottom of Little Cottonwood canyon, is where the dreaded "red snake" can come into view. That's what locals call the seemingly endless line of thousands of red tail lights idling along route 210.

On a big powder day, or a busy weekend, it can sometimes take more than three hours just to travel the windy, two lane, 8-mile road.

"Where we live, we couldn't get out into the street," says Kurt Reichelt, recalling a recent holiday weekend that coincided with big storms. "Everybody and their brother was trying to get up here."

Reichelt and his buddy Brian Cardello, who are retired and originally from Stowe, Vermont, gave up trying to ski those days.

"We take the bus and while we're waiting, we see so many cars with single drivers, I mean, nobody's carpooling," he adds.

Utah's normally efficient public bus system is currently hobbled due to a reported driver shortage. It's clear some people are giving up waiting for busses that either run less frequently or no longer stop at certain park-and-rides near the canyon's entrance.

"There are just too many people," Cardello says. "And it's not [just] here it's everywhere."

Many blame discount season passes like the Ikon, which is good at Alta and Snowbird, or the Epic from Vail Resorts, which allow skiers to bounce easily from one resort to the next, and also chase the best snow between states.

Alta's general manager Mike Maughan says getting to his resort has always been difficult due to frequent heavy snow storms and avalanches that block the highway.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Alta's general manager Mike Maughan says getting to his resort has always been difficult due to frequent heavy snow storms and avalanches that block the highway.

A push for a gondola as a green alternative to driving

In the last 20 years, the number of skiers visiting Utah resorts has nearly doubled, from 3 million to now close to 6 million, according to Ski Utah, an industry trade group.

"We have the same infrastructure, the same road that we had 20 years ago," says Mike Maughan, general manager of Alta.

And in a state that relies heavily on ski tourism — last year the industry raked in close to $1.4 billion — there's pressure to fix the mess in the canyon.

Enter the gondola, which the Utah Department of Transportation estimates would move roughly the same number of skiers and commuters up Little Cottonwood in an hour — a thousand — as the road does on a rare, traffic-free day.

"The gondola is going to travel at a constant speed," Maughan says. "So when the road surface becomes slick, it's not going to slow down because it's snowing."

The state's preferred plan — according to a recent environmental impact study — would involve stringing a cable on towers 260 feet above the road, with gondola cabins attached that could hold 35 skiers. Cabins would depart every two minutes from the mouth of the canyon, where a large parking structure and terminal would need to be built.

The estimated cost is listed at $550 million, though it's widely thought that number will go up if construction moves forward.

"It is a big idea," says Maughan, who figures it'd be one of the longest gondolas ever built in the world.

Opponents call it "a highway with only two off ramps"

Everyone agrees the current traffic situation is unworkable. But it's also clear that building a massive new piece of infrastructure in a polarized America today won't be easy. So far there appears to be a lot of local opposition.

Early one morning before work, Matt Palmer was getting in his car after some backcountry "dawn patrol" laps. He was at park-and-ride at the mouth of the canyon where bus service has been temporarily suspended.

"I see it as a revenue builder, a little gold star for the government to say we put this gondola in and we've brought even more tourists," Palmer says.

Further north at a bus stop along Wasatch Blvd., skier Jake Nemmits says getting to the resorts on big powder says is rough.

But a gondola?

"I think it's kinda farcical when meanwhile we could just fund a lot more of the ski bus and maybe look for another lane," he says.

Last Fall, after the state formally announced its preferred alternative, Salt Lake city and county councils of governments both passed resolutions in opposition to a gondola. County councilman Jim Bradley, a longtime environmentalist, is pushing the state to improve its existing bus service with dedicated bus lanes and EV busses. He also supports tolling and tighter traction controls, especially for rental cars which some days account for half of the vehicle load.

These are more practical and sustainable, Bradley says, and a gondola in his view would threaten the pristine nature of the canyon.

"We don't know how long this snow is going to be in our Wasatch hills," he says. "With climate change, which is real, we could have good days and bad, good years and bad years. and we may not need the capacity that they claim a gondola could provide."

Gondola opponents say building it would be like making a highway with only two off ramps to two private ski resorts.

Alta Ski Area has long been a bucket list for skiers in North America.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
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Kirk Siegler/NPR
Alta Ski Area has long been a bucket list for skiers in North America.

A desperate plea to do something

Back at Alta, GM Mike Maughan bristles at that characterization. He says there are well over 100 private businesses — and scores of homes and condos — in Little Cottonwood. It's not just Alta and the Snowbird resorts. Gondola proponents are also quick to point out that the canyons are already developed with a huge amount of infrastructure, including the Snowbird tram and luxury resorts.

While the gondola would for sure help the private resorts, Maughan says there's a clear public benefit as well. It would move more people and be a lot cleaner than what exists now, idling traffic.

"It's like any other public works throughout the nation, whether it's a bike trail in some rural community or a tunnel somewhere," Maughan says. "Only certain people use those public improvements but they're paid for by everybody."

Maughan says Alta has been pushing for more busses and improved service for years. A new parking reservation system has helped crowd control some but not enough. (Nearby Snowbird down the canyon does not require reservations).

The state's final decision on the gondola is expected later this winter.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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