JACKSON HOLE, WYO – A debate on Tribal Trails is a divisive one—both with the general public and elected officials. Yesterday’s Board of County Commissioner meeting proved that out after a close 3-2 vote moved the county into a cooperative agreement with the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) to begin planning, design, and potential construction of Tribal Trails Road.
The so-called Tribal Trails Connector has been a hot topic for years. Transportation planners favor the notion of redundancy and connectivity to alternative routes in and around the valley. Opposition includes affected neighborhood residents who fear the road will become a busy shortcut thoroughfare for commercial traffic trying to avoid town to access Highway 22.
Chair Mark Newcomb began Tuesday’s meeting by stating up front public comment would not be taken during the discussion. Newcomb acknowledged the BCC has received numerous emails and other correspondence about the issue, and would make sure additional opportunities to weigh in would be forthcoming.
An additional concern of late is the rather unique idea of having a state highway department working on a county road. The advantages of such is the state would pay for construction costs and there would be better assurance of a smoother interface with Highway 22. Since announcing the arrangement a year ago, however, commissioners remain wary of the relationship, wondering even today just who will be the horse and who will be the buggy.
Assurance from the county’s chief deputy attorney Keith Gingery that either party could back out of a cooperative agreement with 30 days’ notice eased concerns somewhat, even though Gingery admitted Tuesday the idea of partnering with WYDOT gave him a stomach ache.
Newcomb voiced the concerns of many, saying, “It sounds like WYDOT making decisions and us going along.”
“We haven’t always had the best track record working with WYDOT; we’ve knocked heads,” Gingery admitted. “This thing gives me a stomach ache because it’s going to be nervous to work with them. They can be difficult to work with at times, so we are trying to build in as many ways to get out of it as we can.”
“This is in our jurisdiction,” commissioner Paul Vogelheim reminded the board. “We are the customer. The citizens are the customer. We hold the purse strings.”
The entire project is currently estimated to cost $6.8 million with the county on the hook for up to a 20% contingency should construction run over budget. Until a construction contract is signed, the county does have an out, Gingery assured commissioners.
Gingery also quelled fears about WYDOT by saying it was not the agency it was a decade or more ago, and new district leadership in place in Rock Springs appears to be much friendlier to Teton County.
“Rock Springs gets us. We are a little more difficult to work with,” Gingery said, referring to Teton County as a pickier partner for WYDOT. “We want to make sure we are working with Rock Springs [as opposed to Cheyenne district]. Luckily, right now, in a personality-driven system, we have a personality we can work with.”
Vogelheim agreed things with WYDOT are much better today.
“This board has worked very hard in building a different relationship with WYDOT,” he said. “There are different people in place. They are making sure our unique values and character we want to see instilled in our road designs are heard, and they are making the effort. The new wildlife crossings [on S. Highway 89 and over Togwotee Pass] are a direct reflection of WYDOT’s change in culture and behavior.”
Commissioner Smokey Rhea was encouraged that WYDOT accepted numerous changes and amendments made by Gingery to an original cooperative agreement contract. By contrast, in years past, O’Malley said frustrations grew when WYDOT simply followed a boilerplate, one-size-fits-all way of working and that was it.
How they voted
One sticking point for Newcomb and others was “letting the horse out of the barn” by moving forward with the notion that the road would be built.
County engineer Sean O’Malley expressed as much as well by stating the Integrated Transportation Plan (ITP), particularly Appendix L, appeared to contradict the charter and typical NEPA process by predetermining an outcome. O’Malley’s concern was that Appendix L, which outlines procedures for capital improvement projects, does not follow standard NEPA protocol by allowing for a “take no action” determination.
Newcomb also expressed a desire to move forward only under the premise that the county was starting with “a clean slate” and not a connector road being built as a foregone conclusion.
Working his way up to a ‘no’ vote based on the lack of transparency and definable schedule that the public could follow along with, commissioner Greg Epstein appeared frustrated with the O’Malley’s lack of faith in the ITP as a guiding document.
“It’s unique that we are bringing WYDOT in to design a county road, especially one that has been a hot topic for 20 years,” Epstein said. “I want to make sure this process is as transparent as possible. I want to stick to the ITP as much as possible. We wrote it for a reason.”
Rhea said she thought it important WYDOT understands from the beginning this is the county’s project. She was satisfied they did. “I haven’t seen indication from WYDOT they don’t believe this as well,” she said. “It’s been a long process. It’s a hot topic. We will never appease everybody, but I think the consensus now is to make this a community-friendly road.”
Commissioner Natalia Macker said while she had “tons of questions remaining to be answered” she agreed they would have to wait until the process at least got started.
The BCC voted 3-2 to enter into a Cooperative Agreement (ARS3905) between the Wyoming Department of Transportation and the Teton County Board of County Commissioners for Tribal Trails Road. Commissioners Newcomb and Epstein were opposed.