Traffic tensions erupted at a public meeting Thursday about the impending expansion of Teton County’s busiest highway.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation is zeroing in on a project to replace and widen the Snake River bridge and reconfigure and expand the intersection of Highways 22 and 390. But contradictory visions for the entire corridor fueled the heated meeting where state and local interests sparred over how best to handle traffic.
“We all need to understand everyone has frustration on everything,” WYDOT Resident Engineer Bob Hammond said at the meeting.
As consultants worked through their presentation about transit options for the WYDOT project, about 30 people seated in a conference room at SpringHill Suites started peppering consultants and engineers with questions and critiques.
“It’s not holistic.”
“What do you do about boat traffic?”
“Has anyone considered something fun, a solar powered train?”
“Where are the wildlife?”
“You should follow NEPA.”
Eventually, Wilson resident Marylee White stood up, seeking to summarize local concerns.
“The problem a lot of people are having with this plan and design and process is that we lack a vision for this corridor,” White said. “It’s very hard to make decisions about the intersection if we don’t understand how the rest of Highway 22 is going to be built in 2040.”
White’s summation garnered audience applause.
Leaning against a wall in the back of the room, WYDOT District Maintenance Engineer Tory Thomas jumped in to say the department tried to rebuild Highway 22 two decades ago.
“The community said, ‘Hell no, we are not expanding that corridor based on environmental or whatever reasons,’” Thomas said. “It should’ve been a five-lane road.”
In 1999 the Wyoming Transportation Commission cut funding for reconstructing and widening Highways 22 and 390, the Jackson Hole Guide reported, “after weighing loud opposition from the local community and the state’s looming budgetary shortfall.” Back then WYDOT surpassed its trigger for building Highway 22 to five lanes: 15,000 vehicles a day. In July 2019 the highway averaged 23,283 vehicles per day.
But the audience rebuffed Thomas.
“I don’t think you’re being very helpful, no offense,” Highway 390 neighbor Holly Pratt said from the audience.
“I don’t think this guy should be here with us,” she said. “That’s totally antagonistic.”
Soon after, tensions escalated to the point that former Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner stood up to tell the audience to simmer down.
“Frankly, I’m embarrassed,” Flitner said. “We can do better than this. They are here, and we are going to have a conversation. We should welcome them into our community and thank them for doing the best they can do given the information they have. ... When we see solutions that we want to do better, if we have been welcoming and hospitable in the conversation, we will have a chance to get the things we want.”
The audience applauded.
The purpose of the meeting was to review and gather opinions on a new transit report studying how WYDOT’s 2023 reconstruction of the intersection and bridge can be designed to accommodate START bus into the future.
WYDOT agreed to pay up to $120,000 for the study, which analyzed a list of strategies to reduce bus travel time and distance.
The results? Consultants recommended adding a traffic signal on Highway 390 at the boat launch or Stilson, relocating bus stops to Highway 390 to avoid bus detours through the Stilson park and ride, and prioritizing buses at traffic lights along the entire highway.
They did not, however, recommend separate lanes for carpools and buses, a town and county goal, which frustrated many locals. Town and county plans advocate high-occupancy-vehicle and bus lanes to incentivize people to get out of their cars by making bus and carpool travel faster.
Since WYDOT plans to widen the bridge to four lanes and add lanes to the intersection, the capacity of the road will be increased such that a separate HOV and bus lane wouldn’t be needed, consultants determined.
The conflict boils down to a fundamental disagreement.
“I realize there is a desire to have congestion in those lanes to push people into buses, but that’s not something that is reasonable in the eyes of the department,” Hammond said.
Locals pressed WYDOT on how the intersection designs and transit recommendations encourage people to take the bus or carpool.
“Without some kind of a HOV lane that could be at least incorporated in 2040, when the rest of Highway 22 is rebuilt, I just don’t see how it’s encouraging people to get out of their cars and take the bus and use alternative modes of transportation,” White said. “We don’t want to get there four minutes faster; I don’t think that’s everyone’s priority.”
But WYDOT-hired consultant Brian Smalkoski said it’s “very difficult” to make transit faster than single-occupancy vehicles in a rural environment like Jackson. Large metro areas are where light rail and freeways with HOV lanes really work, he said.
“There’s quite frankly not enough congestion or density here in order to make the bus faster than the car,” Smalkowski said. “What we’re trying to do is make the bus closer to the travel time of a car.”
Hammond said it would be difficult for WYDOT to reserve two lanes for HOV or buses in a four-lane road and cram the rest of the traffic into two lanes. And six lanes would be unpopular, he said. Hammond also said enforcing a high-occupancy vehicle lane would be a “nightmare.”
Contacted after Thursday’s meeting, WYDOT Engineer Tory Thomas said the Jackson meeting had more attendance than usual in other places in the state.
“Jackson is in its own little world when it comes to that,” he said.
He also said engineers need to focus on the highway corridor itself.
“The only issues that come up are bike paths and wildlife crossings,” Thomas said.
“No one seems to care about the capacity and level of service and that that roadway is a borderline failure on any given day,” he said.
Overall, Hammond said he was pleased with the meeting and WYDOT collected helpful ideas to incorporate into a final draft of the transit report by the end of the year.
The final report will be shared with the community and town and county officials to gauge interest in the transit strategies.
“We got some good feedback from people and had some good questions,” Hammond said.
“As public meetings go, that’s the whole purpose of it,” he said. “We were able to push through and get back on track.”
Teton County Commissioner Luther Propst, who attended the beginning of the meeting, said he hopes WYDOT can work with the county and be open to new ideas.
“I hope the county and community and WYDOT can hit the reset button and start working together more effectively,” he said.