The proposed gondola at Little Cottonwood Canyon has been the topic of heated discussion over the last several months. The intention behind the gondola is to reduce traffic in the canyon in an environmentally friendly way while maintaining its aesthetic. Many are concerned by the anticipated cost of the gondola – estimated at around $550m – and fail to see how such an expensive project has benefits for taxpayers who do not frequent the ski resorts this project will service most.
Whatever the solution ends up being – expanded bus routes, the gondola, or anything else – Utah taxpayers will foot the bill, assuming the Utah Legislature appropriates funds. The funds may be matched or complemented by federal and/or private funding, although this is not being actively sought. While there are many considerations to be made regarding the decision, from the perspective of the taxpayer, the most important must be the comparative costs.
While the “No-Action Alternative” inevitably would be the cheapest option for taxpayers, it simply allows the problem to persist. This could come with indirect costs for taxpayers, or simply result in delaying a solution to a time when costs have risen further.
Some have suggested that alternatives to the gondola such as tolls or an enhanced bus system might be more likely to be subsidized by the ski resorts, but UDOT in July 2022 stated that, “there is no indication at this time that one alternative would be subsidized more than another, thus reducing the tax contribution from Utah residents.” It is important to note that UDOT does not anticipate that this project will generate revenue or be profitable; its goal is to provide a public service. UDOT already runs several such services, like the FrontRunner train, which services around 20,000 passengers daily.
Many have argued that the gondola alternative is an expensive option. This table, produced by UDOT, shows that the initial capital cost of the gondola alternative is higher than the bus service alternatives by around $200m. (Note that these estimates are from 2020 and current estimates would be higher for all alternatives).
However, the annual operating costs of the gondola compared to the bus services is significantly lower meaning that in the long term, the gondola becomes a more cost-effective option. Buses have a life cycle of around 15 years before needing to be replaced and have higher operation and maintenance costs than the gondola would have. Additionally, buses require more staff than does a gondola, and UDOT already struggles with staff shortages across its network.
This table demonstrates that over a 30-year life cycle, the gondola alternative (starting at La Caille) becomes a significantly cheaper option than the bus service alternative.
While there are many considerations to be made regarding Little Cottonwood Canyon, the most taxpayer-friendly solution of the alternatives currently being considered is clearly Gondola Alternative B. Although it has high initial costs, its ongoing costs are much lower than other options, and consequently represents a better deal for taxpayers.