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Communities reconnect after Teton Pass opens


(Photo provided by WYDOT)

By Jasmine Hall
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — The pace picked up in Wilson as soon as Teton Pass reopened at noon Friday.

Cars lined up to drive up Highway 22. Gas pumps at Basecamp bustled. Travelers, locals and construction workers grabbing lunch could only discuss one thing: the road.

A paved, two-lane bypass reconnected Jackson Hole and Teton Valley, Idaho, less than three weeks after the Big Fill landslide on June 8. It’s a short-term fix that Wyoming Department of Transportation and Evans Construction crews have been working on nonstop in order to relieve drivers from a nearly four-hour round-trip detour over Pine Creek Pass, along Palisades Reservoir and through the Snake River Canyon.

“While temporary, this safely reconnects communities and gives commuting families their valuable personal time back,” WYDOT Director Darin Westby said after the road was reopened. “This process underscores the vital importance of infrastructure like mountain passes that connect people to work, family, medical care, affordable housing and other necessities.”

Just one week after the pass closed, WYDOT officials were aiming to reopen the road at the end of June.

“I remember when I heard that,” said Basecamp Manager Emily Morales, who was handling the instantly busier store. “They said it would only be a few weeks, and I didn’t believe it. I will believe it when I see it, and here we are.”

The state transportation agency considers it the quickest large-scale bypass construction in recent memory.

“Together with our stakeholders, partners, contractors and community advocates, we were able to accomplish this major feat in a matter of weeks — despite expectations that it would take months, or even years — all while keeping safety paramount,” said John Eddins, WYDOT District 3 Engineer. “Of course, we have so many to thank for this achievement.”

The list was long. From Evans Construction and Avail Valley Construction accomplishing a massive undertaking on the landslide bypass and mudslide cleanup, to Gov. Mark Gordon and state and federal officials advocating for emergency funding. The Caribou-Targhee National Forest team and Idaho Transportation Department were also vital in the aftermath of the pass collapse.

“I think every Wyoming resident or regional commuter can be proud of their transportation department,” Westby said. “WYDOT staff from a variety of departments and areas of expertise rolled up their sleeves and got to work for the people — a master level class in public service.”

Both Idaho and Wyoming communities were grateful for the fast action.

Signs were hung by Wilson businesses — both thanking the WYDOT construction workers and welcoming drivers back to the bustling hamlet at the base of the pass — and there was a sigh of relief.

“I’m really excited that it is no longer going to be such a huge stressor for our employees that had been impacted,” Morales said. “The people who have been camping, the people who’ve been driving around on a regular basis — I’m relieved for them that they don’t have to do that anymore. That’s the thing I care about the most.”

Cars wasted no time getting back on the road. Even START Bus drivers came up Friday before Highway 22 officially opened and practiced using the bypass, according to WYDOT engineer Bob Hammond.

Lines formed on both sides of the Wyoming and Idaho border, and Trooper Todd Baxter was there to witness it. He was technically off Friday, but he asked his boss, Lt. Matt Brackin of the Wyoming Highway Patrol, if he could be there to help open up the pass.

“I wanted to see what was going on up there because I consider that my place to work and I wanted to get up there and check it out,” Baxter said.

Along with fellow troopers, for several weeks Baxter has been patrolling the detour “around the clock” via Swan Valley and Alpine, and said it’s been hard on everyone. There have been many calls related to road rage, and he described the detour as a “black hole.”

“We were all pulled into it whether we wanted to be or not,” he said.

WYDOT assured highway users in its opening announcement that the slide area will be continually monitored as engineers and other professionals now look to designing and planning the reconstruction of the section of highway impacted by the slide. Officials are collecting real-time information on subsurface movement and using ground-based radar detection, along with personnel inspections.

The goal is to have Teton Pass completely rebuilt before the worst of winter arrives.

But in the meantime, those crossing over the Teton range for the first time since its closure were comfortable with the interim section of road. It’s roughly 600 feet long, with a steeper grade of 11.2% and a sharper curvature. The speed limit is down to 20 mph in the area, and the road is protected by barriers.

Kevin Brown had driven up through Alpine earlier. He now prepared to drive from Wilson to Idaho Falls, and he wasn’t nervous about using the bypass near the landslide rebuild.

He filled up his truck before heading up Teton Pass an hour after it opened.

“It’s worth the risk,” he said.

Michele Halderman drove across Teton Pass with her son who lives in Victor. She was visiting him, and they were preparing to drive down through Swan Valley before getting the notification they could return to the usual route.

“It was quick and short,” she said. “New pavement and not much traffic.”

Halderman wasn’t the only one happy with her journey.

“So far everyone who has given us one digit has put up the thumb,” Hammond said. “That’s a good thing.”

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