Why doesn’t UDOT publish a count of positive and negative gondola comments?

The public submitted over 50,000 comments – by far the most comments of any UDOT project.

(Utah Department of Transportation; illustration by Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A collection of public comments on a proposed gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon is collected prior to a presentation of the proposed project.

To say the proposed eight-mile gondola through Little Cottonwood Canyon is controversial is an understatement.

The gondola — the implementation of which the Utah Department of Transportation announced Wednesday — sparked several crowded public gatherings, sparked protests and led to the creation of advocacy groups for and against. It also prompted 50,000 comments from the public, more than any previous UDOT project.

But UDOT doesn’t count how many comments are against the nacelle and how many are in favor of its construction.

Why this?

“UDOT does not count the comments as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes like in a referendum because the process is not a public vote,” said Josh Van Jura, the UDOT project manager for the Little Cottonwood EIS , in an email on Thursday. Van Jura’s statement reflected something said UDOT in a tweet Wednesday regarding the department’s decision log.

“Rather, public comments are an opportunity for UDOT to provide suggestions or criticism for a project and use the feedback to evaluate whether additional technical or environmental analysis is needed.”

However, UDOT has taken the time to categorize the comments. In the latest batch released this week, all collected over the past few months, UDOT has tagged each public comment according to sentiment expressed in the comments. That is, if a comment were directed against the nacelle, it would receive a specific code, as outlined in a document published by UDOT last year. Different positions have specific codes based on the opinions expressed.

In theory, you could look through the comments and see how many comments were tagged with the anti-nacelle code and not the pro-nacelle code. That’s exactly what Salt Lake City’s Nick Firmani did after UDOT broke the latest public comments.

According to his analysis, which he published on Reddit, 8,990 comments were tagged with the anti-nacelle code, while 1,112 comments were tagged with the pro-nacelle tag. Firmani said the new UDOT document contained around 13,000 comments, meaning there were still plenty of public comments that didn’t include her stance on the nacelle.

Van Jura said Friday that he disagreed with the notion that the codes would be used to sort comments in pro or anti-nacelle boxes. He told The Tribune that the codes are intended to provide detailed responses to any comment UDOT has included in the same document that specifies the codes.

For example, a comment mentioning the nacelle would address the reasons why UDOT chose the nacelle over other options. The document said the gondola was chosen because of the reliability of the trip, travel time on public transit, delays due to snow clearance on roads, and environmental concerns.

Another analysis conducted by KUTV last November found that of the 35,000 comments publicly available at the time, the majority — around 61% — opposed the gondola. About 35% of the comments supported the gondola, while the remaining 4% expressed no opinion.

Van Jura said the tens of thousands of public comments had a major impact on how the department approached handling traffic in Little Cottonwood, particularly by beginning an expansion of bus services.

“I am absolutely confident that we have both a more complete and accurate final EIS and decision record,” he said Wednesday morning.

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A number of elected officials around Salt Lake have made it clear they don’t want the gondola, including Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski – both making public statements on Wednesday saying they expressing their dissatisfaction with the progress of the gondola project.

“It is disheartening to learn of UDOT’s official decision to proceed with plans to build a gondola in Little Cottonwood Canyon despite overwhelming community opposition,” Zoltanski said in a statement.

The public comments, which ran to thousands of pages, are available as part of the agency’s decision log.

People expressed their opposition to the project for various reasons. Many argued that the project — which is now estimated to cost more than $728 million in taxpayer dollars — would benefit almost exclusively the Canyon’s two ski areas, Snowbird and Alta, and benefit only a handful of Utah’s population.

“That’s a terrible idea,” one commenter wrote in recent public comments. “The environmental impact of installing this nacelle will be enormous. These canyons are important wildlife corridors that are irreplaceable. DO NOT STAND THE GONDOLA.”

Proponents argued that the gondola was a more efficient way of getting people in and out of the gorge and said it was greener and safer in the long run than having riders brave the winter road conditions.

“I support the Gondola project 100%,” wrote one commenter during the last comment stage. “Having lived here for 12 years, the traffic situation is terrible for locals AND tourists. Ski resorts are world-renowned, climbers and hikers have rights too, but the impact is affecting hundreds of thousands of skiers.”

Justin Scaccy

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