JACKSON— Judy Strausberger spent three summers greeting motorists held up by Togwotee Pass construction. In that time, she said, one person was “almost angry” because of the delay.
“We’d visit each car,” she said, recalling how she did her job with her fellow Wyoming Department of Transportation goodwill ambassador, guitar-playing cowboy Les Hamilton. “We’d give them a CD, a brochure about the area” and other goodies.
“Les’ opening line was ‘I’m Roamin’ Wyomin’. This is from WYDOT with apologies from the state of Wyoming.’ Then we’d start laughing.”
Reconstruction of the 38-mile road over 9,658-foot Togwotee Pass was called complete on Sept. 22 when, after seven years, the last of nearly a quarter-million tons of asphalt was rolled out.
The first road over Togwotee Pass opened in 1921, roughly following an Indian trail that had been used for centuries. The road wasn’t paved until 1950, and it was that pavement that motorists drove on until reconstruction began, said WYDOT spokesman Cody Beers.
“There were huge cracks, landslide activity, effects of earthquakes through time,” said Beers, whose grandfather ran cows up there and who as a kid hunted and fished and camped there.
“It was rough, narrow, not very safe, with huge drop-offs.”
WYDOT planned to make a safe, high-quality, efficient highway. That meant ripping up old asphalt, rebuilding the sub-base, filling or flattening hazardous grades, widening lanes, adding shoulders and pullouts, improving drainage, increasing sight lines, designing for recreational users — all while respecting the environment through which Highway 26/287 passes.
Cory Hatch, public lands manager at the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, which pushed the department to do a wildlife movement study and spoke up at key moments during the project, observed that the scenic byway borders prime grizzly bear habitat and passes through an area known to harbor Canada lynx. It’s also habitat to deer, moose, elk, wolverines.
“There’s all kinds of good stuff up there,” he tells the Jackson Hole News & Guide (http://bit.ly/TCaR1K ).
WYDOT also had to reckon with thousands of acres of wetlands, unstable geology and tourist traffic on which the economies of communities at both ends of the corridor rely.
The highway is one of only three eastern approaches to Yellowstone National Park and one of three approaches to Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park. From Dubois, the town of 1,000 at the eastern end of the pass, the road is the only way west. If word of long waits got out, Dubois might as well have been at the end of a cul-de-sac.
WYDOT broke ground in May 2005 and executed the project in five sections, four under general contractor Oftedal Construction Inc. of Casper and Miles City, Mont., and one under LeGrand Johnson out of Logan, Utah. Early estimates put the cost at about $88 million, but Beers said the bill added up to more than $146 million in state and Federal Highway Administration funds.
Reconstruction required a mountain of material.
While the highway mostly stuck to its existing path, lanes were widened from 10 feet to 12 feet, and eight-foot shoulders were added. The highway now has 16 parking areas where motorists can pause to admire the scenery and athletes can depart for adventure.
Seven wildlife underpasses were improved or created, including three that double in the winter as snowmobile underpasses. The department even lowered the speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph.
WYDOT was praised by agencies involved in the project or that represented interests affected by it.
“I think they were extremely responsive,” said Thomas Matza, Bridger-Teton National Forest Buffalo District ranger, whose office sits on the highway where the Black Rock Creek bridge was rebuilt to improve wildlife flow. “I was surprised by how open they were.”
When problems occurred — the heavy snows of 2010-11 caused slumping after some sections were complete, for example — contractors went back and fixed them, Matza said.
“WYDOT did an exceptional job,” said Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Doug Brimeyer. “I don’t know about other projects, but WYDOT was extra sensitive to issues here.”
He pointed to a flap over Rosie’s Ridge, where Highway 26/287 comes out of the hills and into Buffalo Valley. The dynamic geology there causes landslides that make road building and maintenance a pain. WYDOT wanted to shift the road to the north to avoid the active soils, but the idea was shouted down at a 2004 public meeting in Moran, at least in part because the area is Primary Grizzly Conservation Area.
“We heard loud and clear,” Beers said.
Besides, building in pristine habitat would have required that they improve 2 acres for every 1 they disturbed.
WYDOT had to use its entire arsenal of earth stabilization tricks on the highway, including, along an area dubbed the Megalandslide, hundreds of horizontal drains for subsurface water. Jim Dahill, WYDOT geologist, said some produce hundreds of gallons a minute.
Another breakthrough was wildlife underpasses. Seven were installed to a tune of about $14 million, WYDOT environmental coordinator Bob Bonds estimated.
In some cases, bridges were raised and extended to improve wildlife movement. In others, new underpasses were created, including a 42-foot-wide, 27-foot-high, 126-foot-long wildlife arch along the Rosie’s Ridge project. Three 14-by-14-foot box culverts double as snowmobile underpasses in the winter.
“The first question that came out of WYDOT executive staff was, ‘What in the world are you talking about?”’ said Bonds. “It was purely experimental.”
It’s still early, but Bonds and Matza said the underpasses seem to work. Cameras have captured elk, moose, foxes, grizzlies and black bears using them.
As for wetlands, the project affected only about 20 acres, Bonds said, all of which were mitigated at a 2 to 1 ratio.
Then there was that risk of grumpy motorists and anxious tourist towns.
“WYDOT did a really good job of keeping the contractors to no more than 15-minute waits” during the daytime, said Jeff Golightly, the Jackson Chamber of Commerce executive director who had a front-row seat on the action as general manager of Togwotee Mountain Lodge. “Any time one of the three major arteries into Jackson Hole is being worked on, there’s the fear it’s going to adversely impact tourism.”
But that didn’t happen. Traffic flowed. Motorists didn’t complain. And the department took great strides — about $2.1 million worth of PR strides — to make sure people knew it.
Dubois became home to engineers, contractors and crew members who shopped in the stores, Beers said, and pumped money into the economy.
Like other state transportation agencies, Wyoming’s had a reputation — deserved or not — for being a bureaucracy whose sole purpose was to build roads. Beers thinks that has changed as a result of the Togwotee Trail and the Snake River canyon project a decade earlier.
“I think we’ve become much more people-oriented,” he said.
He said WYDOT came to use “customer service“ techniques that might be second nature to businesses but were new to road builders. Phone calls from residents were returned. Bicyclists were given lifts through construction areas.
Strausberger made regular trips to Dubois and Jackson to answer questions.
“People were surprised we even cared,” Beers said.
Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com