After five years the consensus is that the plan charting the future of transportation in Jackson Hole has been neglected, with the town’s most senior planner going so far as to say that “transportation has not been a priority.”
But most people weighing in on the Integrated Transportation Plan also believe that it’s still basically sound and that it remains the best chance to achieve the community’s vision for how people should travel around, as well as to and from, the valley. The policies and projects on which it is based simply haven’t been carried to fruition.
Now the town of Jackson and Teton County have hired Jim Charlier, an expert on transportation in mountain towns who crafted the plan in 2015, to update it and help them decide how to implement its prescriptions.
“You aspire to things, and they’re things we all agree to,” said Charlier, of Charlier Associates, at a recent joint meeting of the Town Council and Board of County Commissioners. “But the things we have to do to actually get us there are hard to do, and when push comes to shove we don’t do them.”
Part of the problem is a lack of staffing. With planners and START officials already stretched thin, the town and county don’t have the resources to delve into transportation the way they would like to.
“We haven’t been able to implement that much in the past five years,” Commissioner Greg Epstein said, “and a lot of it is bandwidth.”
The plan offers clear solutions to that problem, and at this point it’s largely a matter of prioritizing and funding them.
For example, one of the major overlooked steps is to hire a transportation director, who would focus entirely on the kind of planning that is now added to the workload of employees who must split their attention between many subjects.
For example, county Engineering Manager Amy Ramage said she and her colleagues are “working with WYDOT on a nearly daily basis now,” especially as the state agency works to reconfigure the intersection of Highways 22 and 390.
It would be helpful, she said, to hire “a person who’s engaged and able to communicate with those people productively and effectively.”
Elected officials debated whether one person would be enough, with Epstein arguing that “it is way more than a single human being can tackle.”
For example, another employee could deal with a transportation demand management plan — designed to “get the most out of the money you do invest in transportation,” Charlier said.
He and others suggested a slow start in hiring, considering the first attempt to bring on a full-time transportation planner failed when he quit after three months in early 2018.
“We’ve been unable to hire one person to do any of this work,” Councilor Jim Stanford said, “let alone a whole department.”
Charlier said another obstacle to achieving transportation goals is disagreement between the town and county. Besides just recruiting a director they could also establish a regional transportation planning organization to bridge that divide.
Those are all among the actions that a coalition of community members has increasingly called for in recent months.
“Please be thrilled that there’s actually some unity and support behind what you’re trying to do,” Katherine Dowson, executive director of Friends of Pathways and one of the authors of a recent Guest Shot in the News&Guide, said at the meeting.
Some wondered whether a simple fine-tuning of the current plan would be enough. The number of annual vehicle miles traveled has taken just five years to surge past projections for 20 years out. Between 2013 and 2018 it jumped from 480 million to 610 million, far above the 560 million estimated for 2035.
“To me that calls into question a lot of the fundamental thinking underlying [the plan],” Councilor Jonathan Schechter said.
Tweaking the status quo, he said, seems like “shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Instead, Schechter said, it would be better to go back to the basics and determine what exactly the town and county want to target.
One of the biggest takeaways from the transportation data of the past few years, according to Charlier, is that it would be futile to aim for a reduction in traffic.
Essentially, he said, there is so much latent demand that there will always be more cars to fill any excess road space. Congestion is here to stay.
Charlier sees the evidence of that in WYDOT’s widening of South Highway 89 to five lanes in recent years. As the thoroughfare has expanded, traffic there has increased drastically. In the same time the other major roads, which have remained the same, have seen little to no traffic growth.
Another recurring theme in the transportation conversation has been high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. Most elected officials said they were at least interested in HOV lanes, which are designed to encourage people to carpool, thereby removing cars from the road.
Commissioner Mark Barron said that if HOV lanes aren’t added, “I think we’re screwing the pooch.” WYDOT officials have said they “are not completely against an HOV lane or completely for it.”
Some elected officials stressed the importance of making it easier to use alternate modes of transportation, such as transit and bikes, and harder to drive cars, especially those with a single occupant. But others said it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to persuade people to abandon their travel habits, at least outside of the warm summer months.
Stanford recalled how, at another recent meeting on a snowy day, he asked for a show of hands of those who arrived by some means other than car. Out of perhaps three dozen people, just two or three raised their hands.
“Personally, and on a policy level, I support all the goals that we put into the plan,” Stanford said. “But I also have been trying to say we need to be realistic.”
Mayor Pete Muldoon was wary of pursuing too many things at once. He argued the highest priority should be to hire the transportation director, noting that person will surely have input on the Integrated Transportation Plan.
“If we’ve got all of these things that are distracting to us, and somewhat paralyzing, it’s going to be very difficult to move foward,” Muldoon said. “We know there’s some low-hanging fruit out there.”
Based on the council and commission’s discussion, Charlier said he will bring back a set of the most significant potential changes to the ITP in the near future. That could be in January.