Planet Jackson Hole, Guest Opinion – We all felt it this summer, and it didn’t feel good. Seasonal traffic congestion that was worse than ever. On one particular Wednesday, it felt utterly terrible.
On Wednesday, August 5, I spent an incredible day hiking up Breccia Peak with my brother and an old friend enjoying stunning views, sunshine, and the obligatory Wyoming hail storm (which the dog did not enjoy). After an awe-inspiring stop at Dornan’s, where we got to witness the power of a summer thunderstorm electrocuting the Tetons, we tried to head south into town. As we descended the hill next to the Fish Hatchery all we could see was a line of stopped cars snaking all the way into town. Having an option, we pulled a u-turn and jogged over to Spring Gulch Rd. We were home in no time. My parents and my daughter Piper weren’t so lucky.
That same day my parents left the Aspens around 4:30 p.m. with my six-year-old daughter Piper, heading into town to meet us at our place for dinner. When I called them to let them know we might be late because of our unplanned detour they explained they were stuck in traffic on Hwy 390 and not moving. They had tried a similar move to what I pulled when they recognized the highway was blocked and attempted to take the Moose-Wilson road, but the park had just closed it for dust abatement application. So now they were stuck near the Village with no options. Nixle told me there was an accident blocking Hwy 390 near the Aspens so I told them their best (and only real) option was to stay calm and wait for it to clear.
This accident was one in a series that week which completely jammed up our valley – I’d bet you too found yourself in one of these messes. After two hours the accident cleared and they began creeping south. My Mom called and explained, “The good news is we’re moving. The bad news is Piper isn’t feeling well and just threw up in the car. We’ll get her home, only three hours late.”
While these accidents made things worse, the “new normal” traffic situation this summer was miserable from the start. This summer seasonal congestion caused daily back-ups from town past the Fish Hatchery to the north, over Teton Pass in the west, and to Hoback in the south. Traffic you would sit in, trying to stay calm, checking your phone to see if you had a Nixle alert explaining the cause of the congestion, and then realizing it’s just a normal Tuesday in the summer in Jackson Hole.
Here’s the thing – we know how to address seasonal traffic congestion, because we’ve done it before.
More than two decades ago, a new master plan at Teton Village raised concerns about increasing traffic on Hwy 390 during the winter. Our community had to make a choice: invest in making it more convenient to take transit to the Village than it is to drive, or widen Hwy 390. Fortunately, we made the right call and now taking transit to the Village in the winter is easy and convenient, while Hwy 390 has remained a 2-lane road.
Now, summer seasonal traffic congestion is degrading our quality of life, the experience of visitors, and the efficiency of our business operations, while threatening the safety of people and wildlife on our roads. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Jackson Hole stands at a crossroads. We can do nothing and let seasonal congestion continue to degrade our quality of life. We could also take a 1950s approach and widen the highways that divide our community; although that would be the traffic equivalent of buying bigger pants to deal with a weight problem. This won’t address our congestion challenges, would put additional stress on wildlife, and does not align with our community’s values.
Or, we can get serious about investing in transit because it’s our ticket to tackling seasonal congestion. Fortunately, our recently adopted Integrated Transportation Plan (ITP) provides a blueprint for how we can make transit an easy and convenient way for most of us to get where we need to go.
Now, we need to find a dedicated and consistent funding source for the transit infrastructure and operations detailed in the ITP. In addition, we should fund investments that make it safe and convenient for people to reach transit on foot and bike. Low-cost and high return investments like sidewalks, bike parking, and a bike share program.
In addition, we should recognize that we don’t simply have a traffic problem; we have a housing and land use problem. Since too many hard working families can’t afford to live here, they are forced to commute long distances over the pass and down the canyon, clogging our roads. We should focus transit investments on making it feasible for more people to commute by bus from Alpine, Star Valley, Victor, and Driggs. We should also invest in our recently adopted Housing Action Plan to help ensure at least two thirds of people who work here can live here.
Finally, we must engage Grand Teton National Park in developing transit solutions, as the park is one of our community’s primary traffic generators in the summer. The park should take a harder look at transit in the Environmental Impact Statement for the Moose-Wilson Corridor, because our community’s success on Hwy 390 demonstrates that transit can help with our congestion challenges. This is why the Alliance is partnering with the Teton Village Association to convene a discussion with the park and other key stakeholders about how we can work together to address our congestion challenges.
This won’t be easy, nor will it happen overnight, but if we get serious about dealing with our traffic congestion by providing people with transportation choices through investments in transit, bicycling, and walking, we can provide most people with the freedom to safely and conveniently get where they need to go. PJH
Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.