UDOT’s final decision on the construction of a gondola to ease traffic in the Little Cottonwood Canyon was made mid-July, and with that decision came the resurgence of old arguments that the project will only benefit some – specifically, those who own or frequent the ski resorts in that canyon – and that this is an expense that taxpayers should not cover.
Your Utah Taxpayers Association, after reviewing the six proposals being seriously considered by UDOT to address this problem, concluded that the gondola was the most efficient use of taxpayer funds. Although the gondola construction includes high initial costs, its operation and maintenance over a 30-year life cycle is cheaper than other alternatives proposed.
There is an argument that this project stands to benefit only a few, and that private companies – the ski resorts, perhaps – could foot the bill. However there is significant precedent within the state for funding special projects that benefit only a few.
The Higher Education Capital Budget for the construction of new college and university buildings was $653m between FY22 and FY23, for example. These buildings only benefit the very few students who attend classes in those buildings at those higher education institutions but were paid for using General Funds collected through sales and other tax revenues. Similarly, the Utah Valley Express bus service in Provo/Orem was paid for using federal funds and is used by a tiny fraction of Utah residents. A similar venture in Ogden is being similarly funded and supplemented by state funds. Other projects include the FrontRunner train, etc..
The Kem C. Gardner institute reported that, “Utah ski and snowboard visitors spent a record $2.35 billion in the Utah economy during the 2021-2022 ski season, with out-of-state skiers spending nearly four times as much as local skiers”. This is money that works its way to the Utah state General Fund and enriches many Utahns who work in the industry. The gondola project in the Little Cottonwood Canyon is set to cost $728MM over 30 years and directly benefit many of these ski tourists, encouraging them to continue to visit, and spend.
The gondola represents an investment in Utah’s tourism industry – an industry which pays significant dividends and in turn funds many of the services the state provides. While easing traffic in a popular ski resort destination doesn’t sound like a very egalitarian endeavor, there are significant financial benefits to everyday Utahns when the state is hospitable to visitors.