A pending federal grant application may update infrastructure across Teton Pass, but officials say a broader look at the pass is needed.
“There needs to be a good solid corridor management plan through Idaho over the top,” Jay Pence, Teton Basin district ranger for Caribou-Targhee National Forest, told the News&Guide.
The goal of a plan, in his mind and others, is to set up a framework for managing all the uses on Teton Pass: backcounty skiers and snowboarders in the winter, runners, hikers and bikers in the summer and commuters year-round.
Sometimes those uses are in conflict, like this fall, when the backcountry skiing public verbally scuffled with the Wyoming Department of Transportation over parking in Teton Pass’ coveted top pullout, a primo location from which to access backcountry terrain. While skiers called it a parking lot, WYDOT said it was a brake check area, and said it would be closed until the truck arrestor farther down the pass was finished.
The state transportation department eventually recanted and plowed the lot, but the dust-up underscored how difficult it is to balance the needs of Teton Pass’ thousands of daily users.
Teton County has requested $200,000 toward a planning effort in a $5.2 million application to the Federal Highway Administration’s Federal Lands Access Program, which aims “to improve transportation facilities that provide access to, are adjacent to or are located within federal lands.” But whether the Highway Administration will decide to fund that portion of the project remains to be seen. FLAP grants, considered “cradle to grave” because the Highway Administration takes on approved projects, performing project management, construction administration and the like, tend to be construction-focused. Planning and transit — the application also requests about $200,000 to start a Teton Pass shuttle — are outside a FLAP’s usual scope.
Because of that the grant application also includes a number of construction projects that could be completed before a planning initiative is undertaken.
Linda Merigliano, the recreation program manager for the Jackson District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, said the grant tries to answer a question: “What can we do in the short term to redesign what we currently have up there that will make it more usable and reduce the conflict between the highway needs and the recreation needs?”
Merigliano’s employer, along with the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, manages most of the public land adjacent to Highway 22, which crosses the pass. Both forests, Teton County, WYDOT, and two advocacy groups — Wyoming Pathways and the Teton Backcountry Alliance — were included in deliberations about what projects to include in the grant application.
If approved in full the grant would see roughly $2.5 million allocated to improve parking in Teton Pass’ summit and overflow pullouts; $400,000 to construct a turning lane near Trail Creek Road; $300,000 to designate a chain-up and skier pickup pullout just below the Heidelburg; and $1.5 million to build an underpass at the Coal Creek trailhead, which would eliminate the need for recreationists to cross the road on their way to trails on the south side of Teton Pass.
The proposal for the top pullout is to designate areas for several purposes: a U.S. Forest Service recreation parking area, shuttle stop, access for brake checking, as well as highway maintenance and Teton County Search and Rescue crews.
“It just kind of organizes what’s happening up there right now,” Merigliano said.
And roughly $100,000 would be spent if the grant is approved to set up pedestrian safety signs near the summit and Phillips trailhead, as well as the $200,000 for shuttle vans and $200,000 for planning.
Gary Kofinas, chairman of the Teton Backcountry Alliance’s steering committee, thought the construction projects proposed were “essential and noncontroversial” and that a larger study of Teton Pass as proposed in the corridor plan was in order to answer questions like “What is the carrying capacity of Teton Pass?” Wyoming Pathways Executive Director Tim Young said a number of improvements have been made to Teton Pass over the years.
“What we’ve been getting is piecemeal projects,” Young said. “These are just these little projects. You don’t know how they all add up. So I think there’s merit to doing more comprehensive planning.”
The Federal Highway Administration will decide what will be funded, if anything.
Teton County Engineer Amy Ramage, who coordinated the grant submission, told the Teton County Board of County Commissioners earlier in December that the Highway Administration can choose to fund items line item by line item, leaving some projects out. But Ramage told the News&Guide on Tuesday that she thinks each individual project has merit: “They’re all very interrelated to needs up there, but they all can stand alone,” she said.
If approved, a public process will begin for each of the funded proposals, giving Teton Pass users a chance to give opinions.
“These are concepts,” Kofinas said. “These are starting points for discussion. And what will actually happen will be the consequence of a planning process.”
And, regardless of the outcome, he thinks the grant application is a good start: “I think that this will lead hopefully to us thinking more broadly about the needs of Teton Pass and the corridor in general from the state line all the way to Wilson.”
Teton County will likely know early in 2021 if the grant will be awarded.