Environmentalists may be relieved that plans to build a gondola connecting the Canyons and Solitude ski resorts is indefinitely stalled in Congress, but what does that mean for the prospects for relief from traffic jams in Big Cottonwood Canyon during the peak ski season?
Not that the so-called SkiLink was any kind of panacea for road congestion, but the proposal was at least couched as a way to help with the critical issue of transportation congestion in the canyons of the Wasatch. It appears the gondola is waylaid while a comprehensive examination of that problem takes place. That's a good thing.
The SkiLink proposal remains an idea worthy of consideration, but more worthy in the context of a general assessment of transportation alternatives than as a stand-alone proposal.
SkiLink was pushed by the corporate owners of the Canyons resort, who have since leased operations of the facility to another company. The new operator appears less enthralled by the concept of a hopscotch shortcut over federally controlled forestland to the Solitude resort.
Proponents argued the gondola would take a large number of vehicles off the road by giving ski tourists a way to sample the terrain in both the Cottonwood canyons and the Park City areas without an hour-long commute by car. Opponents argued the connector wouldn't sharply reduce traffic and would amount to a de facto expansion of commercial ski terrain in areas of delicate watershed, which also happen to be popular among backcountry recreationists.
SkiLink as it was proposed would not have gone forward without careful environmental assessment. But there was no mechanism to specifically assess the transportation value of the gondola in the context of other possible transportation options.
Now, at the behest of local governments and with the apparent consent of Utah's Congressional delegation, there will be a sweeping environmental assessment, known as the Wasatch Summit, looking at overall transportation needs in a region that includes the Cottonwood canyons, Park City and the Salt Lake International Airport. That kind of holistic analysis is exactly what is needed at this point, to allow governing authorities to get on the same page when it comes to managing access to canyon recreation areas.
The land in question is vital as both watershed and playground, and with proper management should be able to serve both masters even as use increases with population.
It's best that proposals like SkiLink not be judged on their own merits, but in the context of an over-arching master plan. There is long-held interest in the ski industry to interconnect resorts to boost tourism. That's a valid interest, but one that must take second chair to the need for efficient and environmentally sensitive transportation systems, of which connectors like SkiLink may or may not be a part.
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