Stakeholders are worried the public may be left out of the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s redesign process for the Highway 22/390 intersection and nearby Snake River bridge.
A May 29 letter to Teton County commissioners from Jackson Hole Working, the Teton Village Association, the Wilson Advocacy Group, Friends of Pathways and START Board Vice Chairwoman Seadar Rose Davis said as much.
“We are concerned over the lack of meaningful public involvement in the WYDOT planning process,” the letter said. “The public has not had an opportunity to comment on the project purpose and need, or comment on alternatives, or to see an analysis of the impacts of the project, as is typically expected for such a major section by a public agency using federal transportation funds.”
WYDOT plans to replace the bridge and intersection in 2023. The existing bridge is at the end of its life, engineers say, and its narrowness and traffic volume make maintenance a challenge. The bridge is vital as the only link to Wilson and the West Bank, and with the intersection of Highway 22 and 390 so close to the bridge, it made sense for WYDOT to combine the projects.
At a Feb. 21 public meeting, engineers presented a plan for a four-lane bridge with a median and standard shoulders spanning the Snake River. Further, they said the best design for the new intersection would be a “Florida T,” which entails widening the main road to four lanes while also providing a couple of “slip” lanes for vehicles that don’t have to stop at the intersection (eastbound on Highway 22 and westbound turning right onto 390). They also explained why designs for a roundabout, additional lanes or flyovers were rejected.
At that time Resident Engineer Bob Hammond said the design choices were “fairly firm,” but WYDOT is open to public comments and wants to know if the agency “missed something.”
WYDOT has convened a local stakeholder group that met four times, including subcommittees to address wildlife and transit issues. When that full group met June 12, questions were asked about public involvement in the design process.
Friends of Pathways Program Manager Jack Koehler and Teton Village Association Executive Director Melissa Turley said the Feb. 21 meeting merely presented WYDOT’s decision as opposed to asking the public to be part of the process and provide real input. They worried that major decisions for the valley are being made without adequate vetting and feedback from the community at large.
“It’s different to say, ‘Tell us if there’s something we’re missing, but this is what we’re building’ versus ‘How can we do this in a way the community can support it?’” Turley said. “People want an opportunity to weigh in on this. You understand something better when you’re a part of it. That’s the frustration I feel.”
Koehler said that even if four lanes are a given, the stakeholder group and public can help influence the “nature” of the roadway.
“Can we really build a context-sensitive roadway of the future? I think that’s what this community is going to want to see, and not Highway 89 plopped down between 390 and the ‘Y,’” Koehler said.
WYDOT District Engineer Keith Compton acknowledged that WYDOT needs to clear up confusion about the public planning process and how it is adhering to the National Environmental Policy Act. He also said it’s a misconception that the bridge and intersection design will dictate the future of the Highway 22 and 390 corridors. Those projects will have their own separate public processes in the future, he said.
A Planning and Environmental Linkage study published in 2014 envisioned the entire Highway 22 corridor, and called for a four-lane road with a median from town to the turnoff to Teton Village. WYDOT is using that broader study, and the public feedback already collected for the PEL, as a jumping-off point for the intersection and bridge project. Compton said WYDOT is going above and beyond its strict NEPA requirements by holding extra group meetings beyond the PEL study.
District Construction Engineer Ted Wells said WYDOT and county stakeholders need to work together and compromise for a successful project. For example, WYDOT is constrained by federal and state standards for safety and highway design, like requiring 8-foot shoulders.
“You can’t expect to get everything,” Wells said. “We’re trying to take what you guys feel the community wants and make it fit our design within the standards we’re designing to. Sometimes it doesn’t fit; sometimes it does.”
Stakeholders acknowledged that WYDOT’s hiring of a transit consultant to ensure that the intersection and bridge design doesn’t preclude options like high-occupancy-vehicle lanes is a positive step, as is WYDOT’s convening wildlife crossings and transit subcommittees.
Compton said another public meeting will be held to seek feedback on grading plans.
Teton County commissioners are scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Friday with WYDOT Director Luke Reiner.
“We have to be realistic about who gets to make the final decision,” Commission Chairwoman Natalia Macker said, “but I think we have opportunities to work together on that, both as community, citizens, the county as an entity, and that the county is aware of what’s happening and is planning to be involved however we can.”