Tribal Trails connector moves ahead despite opposition

JACKSON, Wyo. — The debated Tribal Trails connector road took a step forward Tuesday with a 4-1 vote of the board of county commissioners (BCC). Commissioners moved to the design concept phase of the project, committing another $800,000 to $1,000,000 despite heavy opposition to the plan.

The completion of 1,800 feet of Tribal Trails Road to connect it with Highway 22 has been on the books since the late 1980s when the Halpin family bought the Brown Ranch and began the development now known as Indian Trails. The road was never completed.

With traffic counts reaching trigger points and causing general frustration, and the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) planning to widen Highway 22 in 2023, the push to get a connector in has been on the front burner for the past three years.

At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the BCC, reason after reason was presented to not commit money to the project at this time, press pause and slow down, or abandon the idea altogether.

Concerned citizen William Smith cited a letter from the Responsible Growth Coalition while covering every page of the opposition playbook.

Smith contends a quantified analysis has ever been done contrasting financial costs against benefits. It could end up costing tens of millions to connect Tribal Trails with Highway 22 when all is said and done, Williams conjectured.

Williams also mentioned a 10-person stakeholder committee that had seven of its members choose a no-build option at this time.

“We are a bit chagrined the letter has been ignored so profoundly,” Williams said.

Finally, Williams accused newly appointed director of public works Heather Overholser of “spouting the same platitudes and retracing irrelevant history since 1991” when citing the need for TTR. He said added the need for transportation redundancy especially for emergency responders had been addressed.

“A full-size fire engine has driven down the bike path connecting Tribal Trails to Highway 22,” Smith said

Alex Muromcew, a member of the overlooked committee, called the planning piecemeal, and questioned the timing and effectiveness of the connector.

“Is this really the time to allocate $800,000 to $1,000,000 given the terrible shortfall town and county face?” Muromcew asked. “This just dumps more traffic onto Highway 22, which is where the problem is. An east-west connector to the south might make more sense especially if the costs are borne by a developer there in northern South Park. “Finally, this project has been deemed nonessential at a time when you are asking employees’ salaries to stay flat. Is this really a priority? Put this on hold. Now is not the time. It may be obsolete or unnecessary in the future.”

Chris Agnew, of Teton Science Schools, asked commissioners to please consider Coyote Canyon and the nightmare of egressing that spot onto Highway 22 on any given afternoon.

WYDOT has planned a wildlife underpass between Coyote Canyon and Skyline when they widen WYO 22.

However, Liz Long of the Jackson Hole Land Trust, warned commissioners about conservation easements in place at Teton Science Schools and Indian Springs Ranch across the highway that might make planning very difficult.

Community planning manager with the Alliance, Brooke Sausser, said the timing is not right to be moving forward with TTR. Not just the monetary outlay but the cost to staff resources and the time they would expend that could be put to better use.

“Other community needs could go unfunded if we move forward with Tribal Trails,” Sausser said. “Hiring a transportation planner, for one. What about implementing the walk, bike, alternative transportation plans of the ITP first? More asphalt will only equal more cost to our wildlife. Focus on core government: Human services, water quality… Please do not fund the Tribal Trails connector this year.”

Dave Schofield, another stakeholder on Tribal Trails committee, called the piecemeal approach the wrong way to go and added, “building out 22 is about the only thing you can do to make the biggest impact.”

Christine Watkins, president of Indian Springs HOA, urged county leaders to address Indian Springs Ranch (ISR) /Teton Science School intersection with Highway 22 first, as the more dangerous issue.

“The stakeholders felt their views weren’t listened to. Given public opinion, to say nothing of the nonessential aspect in a time when county is pressed with other economic concerns, the higher priority would be improving the Teton Science Schools intersection,” Watkins said. She added that no one should be worried about redundancy since ISR has always allowed emergency vehicles to cut through their gated subdivision and has never seen anyone use it.

Mike Halpin, who is the developer for Indian Trails, took a different approach. He recollects the building of a connector road was to be triggered by a count of lots in the subdivision. He contends voluntary downsizing of the allowable homes in Indian Trails and Indian Springs has never triggered PUD agreements from 1991 and 1995 to have the road completed to Highway 22.

“Take a deep breath and slow down,” Halpin urged the commissioners. “You trusted a stakeholder group to [come to a decision]. Listen to them. You owe them that much. I’ve always tried to put the benefit of the many before the few. I see no overwhelming benefit. Please be judged in the future in a good way.”

“Good decisions are based on sound analysis and work toward the will of the people,” said Tom Hogan. He alluded to a May 4 workshop where he saw 3 out of about 110 strawpolled in favor of a connector road. “I’m concerned commissioners may not be getting all information they need. In the name of the people of Teton County, collectively, in the name of good information and sound analysis, please vote no.”

On behalf of Jackson Hole Working, Jessica Jaubert voiced the only support for TTR given Tuesday morning.

Could a large housing project proposed for north South Park tip the scales in favor of a Tribal Trails connector road or cause it to become a mute point in favor of an east-west connector further south? Image: Courtesy Teton County

How they voted

Greg Epstein took the ‘too big to fail approach’ saying, “Let’s not waste the money we’ve already spent.”

While keeping a theoretical “no-build” option on the table throughout the process, the county has managed to spend an actual $635,000 through April 2020 on designs for an 1,800-foot road that it insists could still be left unbuilt.

Mark Newcomb and Luther Propst both wanted to address situations at ISR and TSS and their respective intersections with Highway 22.

“They have both asked us to evaluate and made clear offers to help. The Land Trust also has serious issues about the fencing there with easements,” Propst said. “If we ignore them, they are going to lawyer up, and we are going to delay everything for ourselves. I think there’s a real possibility by further evaluating that may [result in] something that works across the board instead of drawing a line in the sand and telling them that we’re not interested.”

“I don’t disagree with many comments and the stakeholder committee decision,” Mark Newcomb said before voting against them. He said the county can afford the $800,000. As far as the Teton Science School intersection, Newcomb said, “As badly as anyone else I want to see the issue at Coyote Canyon solved. Indian Springs has an issue too. I just want those issues to be solved. The only way to solve these issues short of WYDOT saying, ‘We fixed them,’ is money.”

Mark Barron was simply ready to get going with Tribal Trails.

“Population has doubled since 1992. Remember when Snow King east-west connector in 1985 was controversial?” Barron said, calling it an example of great planning vision. I’m prepared to support the next phase of planning, today. We should be moving on Tribal Trails Road. I am extremely motivated to get going on Teton Science School and the Coyote Canyon Loop, but I don’t want to add a laundry list of items that we are looking at today. Don’t hamstring staff. For today, let’s be mindful of what we have on our plate and get going on this.”

A failed vote to add more alternatives including a “no-build” option caused Natalia Macker to ask Overholser, “You can’t concept design a ‘no-build’ option can you?”

“No, you don’t design a ‘no-build.’ But it gets carried along through the process,” Overholser explained.

Despite Epstein’s concerns that planning a road connection with Highway 22 now would have to presuppose a lot of things on WYDOT’s end when they go to redesign Highway 22 and 390, it was agreed that money would buy Teton County a seat at the table.

We are going to have to pony up to show WYDOT we care about these things, Epstein said.

The BCC approved concept designs for the Tribal Trail connector and moved ahead with the next phase of planning for the controversial road.

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