“Political Pressure” comes to bear on Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation plans

“Political Pressure” comes to bear on Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation plans
Little Cottonwood Canyon, courtesy UDOT.

The following story was reported by Eric Peterson and Jennifer Greenlee of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with Utah Stories.

In December 2020, Central Wasatch Commission executive director, and former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, was fixated on one of several transportation alternatives that were discussed regarding how to get skiers, hikers and bikers up Little Cottonwood Canyon while keeping cars out.

“With a train, it’s possible we could get to the point where we don’t really have cars,” Becker said excitedly.

Commission staff has made an initial recommendation for the cog rail proposal, and the Utah Department of Transportation included the rail route in an Environmental Impact Study it is currently developing. While there is a lot of enthusiasm, there’s also some skepticism. This proposal was only inserted into the study process late last fall, after the CWC had already been studying other alternatives. The proposal has raised concerns from the U.S. Forest Service that it might clash with federal regulations against transportation projects that impact public parks and recreation areas.

In a January 2021 email obtained by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, Forest Service staff discuss the fact that UDOT originally ruled out a rail route up the canyon but then changed their minds.

“UDOT had originally screened-out the cog rail, but due to industry and political pressure (not FS), UDOT decided to carry the cog rail evaluation through,” the email reads.

While cog rail is an exciting prospect, it may also be a lucrative one for C.W. Management, a development company owned by influential former Utah State Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and former Sandy City Councilman Chris McCandless. The company owns the La Caille estate that is the base station for a proposed gondola up the canyon, and the base for the only proposed rail route.

This same company has been very well positioned in the canyons, having also developed property at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, shortly after Niederhauser passed legislation to pave the way for toll roads in the canyons.

“It’s a jigsaw”

The CWC has worked in tandem with UDOT on the canyon transportation question. The goal is being able to reduce congestion up the canyon by putting 1,000 people on transit per hour. The CWC discussed its option in a meeting in March of this year. The proposals included two enhanced bus route options, one of which would include widening roads up the canyon. The first bus option comes with a $334 million price tag, while the widened road options would reach $481 million. While these were the cheapest options, they did not account for the fact that the buses would need to be replaced in 12 years.

Two aerial gondolas were proposed, one from the canyon park-and-ride costing $546 million, and another from the La Caille property costing $576 million.

Only one cog rail route was proposed. With La Caille as the base station, this proposal would cost $1.5 billion.

CWC Deputy Director Blake Perez explains that while the CWC has been studying the alternatives since 2020, UDOT will have the final say. The CWC looks at a larger picture of access issues across the Wasatch Front.

“It’s a jigsaw puzzle, and what UDOT is looking at is one piece of that puzzle,” Perez says.

He says the CWC staff were able to adapt quickly in November of 2020 and study cog rail after UDOT made the late addition of the La Caille rail and gondola routes part of the Environmental Impact Study or EIS.

The CWC staff endorsed the rail option by finding it scored the highest on a comprehensive matrix of factors including environmental, safety, reliability and others. Perez notes the full commission has not yet made an official recommendation but is likely to this summer.

Invariably with such a project, not all pieces of the puzzle are going to fit.

David Carter, with the Salt Lake Climber Alliance, worries about the impact the late proposed options will have on climbing and bouldering in the canyon, especially in historic areas that have undergone significant work to be restored and maintained by the non-profit.

“We were a little surprised by the additional alternatives,” Carter says of the La Caille routes. “It seems they were released without as much notice and without the public comment and engagement processes.”

UDOT Little Cottonwood Canyon Project Manager Josh Van Jura is adamant, however, that the late additions were not due to political pressure and were actually the result of public comment.

“It was not added back in because of political pressure,” Van Jura says. “As part of the public comment period, we did get a comment that said, ‘why aren’t you looking at a cog rail at the same origin point as Gondola B?’”

Public comments, however, also showed amazement about the nature of the UDOT proposal. One Cottonwood Heights resident, for example, complained that UDOT overlooked the fact that the new La Caille proposals would impact a 26-acre open space parcel recently acquired by Cottonwood Heights City and Utah Open Lands.

While UDOT had sent a notice saying they would study how to mitigate the impact on the open space, they also acknowledged they were unaware of the city’s open-space purchase when they proposed the La Caille alternatives.

The resident noted that the confusing decisions by the agency would cause people to speculate about why canyon improvements were being made in the first place.

“Many will conclude that the only reason now for massive improvements on SR-210 is to make sure that Snowbird Ski Resort and McCandless and Niederhauser become rich at public expense,” the resident wrote.

The Forest Service would not provide comments for this article. But email discussions show the federal agency’s confusion about UDOT’s decision-making.

In a January 20 email, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest District Ranger Bekee Hotze asked another staffer: “I thought the cog and gondola were going through Tanner Park, but the write-up says no,” she wrote of the new UDOT alternatives. “However, for the cog, the alignment goes right through Grit Mill, which was just completed and cost over half a million dollars.”

UDOT’s draft EIS has been in development since 2018, and now, after adding the two new routes, it’s expected the draft will be issued this summer, at which time the public will have more opportunities to offer feedback. Update: UDOT has now released two preferred routes for Little Cottonwood Canyon. One is Enhanced Bus Service and the other is Gondola Alternative B with the base station at La Caille. More info can be found at UDOT’s site here.

Buy it or Lose it

C.W. Management would not respond to repeated requests for comment, but partner and developer Chris McCandless has been very frank in meetings with the CWC about the precious opportunity he could offer by utilizing his La Caille property as a transportation base.

In a December 1, 2020 meeting with the CWC, McCandless discussed the project and their personal stake in it.

“We’re big fans of Little Cottonwood Canyon,” McCandless said. “We spend a lot of time there and we’d love to see a solution before we can’t ski anymore.”

He also noted that they have a parking structure with an 1,800 stall capacity available and ready to be put to use.

However, he also warned that his company’s financial stake meant that he would need to sell the property for it to be used as a transportation base. He noted that the company would be able to hold onto it only for a few years, and if they didn’t have a buyer, they would develop homes at the location instead.

That would mean passing on the rail opportunity, especially as UDOT has only advanced the La Caille rail alternative.

“If we put a bunch of houses on it,” McCandless said. “That opportunity is gone.”

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