THE BUZZ: Bumper-to-Bumper Blues

By on September 15, 2015

Tourism traffic, road rage and tough decisions ahead in the valley’s transit future

A proposed north bridge over the Snake River would cut traffic on the west bank, but boost vehicle numbers north of town on Highway 89 where the most recorded wildlife collisions already occur. (Photo: joint toj/tc planning department)

A proposed north bridge over the Snake River would cut traffic on the west bank, but boost vehicle numbers north of town on Highway 89 where the most recorded wildlife collisions already occur. (Photo: joint toj/tc planning department)

On Monday elected officials from the county and town approved the Integrated Transportation Plan (ITP) that staffers deemed “90 percent perfect,” despite objections from many concerned citizens. Officials called the plan a fluid concept that would still need tweaking and monitoring as it is crammed into the 2014 Comprehensive Plan.

Some of the stated goals and objectives of the plan include discussions about a north bridge over the Snake River, a suggested widening of Highways 22 and 390, a Tribal Trails connector road and a revamp of the “Y” intersection at Broadway and Highway 22. The ITP was adopted unanimously at Monday’s joint information meeting.

ITP: What’s in it that might surprise you

Quick, what’s the first state you think of when you hear HOV Lane (High Occupancy Lane)? California, right? Most California transplants who choose to settle in Jackson Hole are looking to escape Golden State ills like high taxes and highway congestion. Taxes they cheated, traffic they brought with them.

Even before this summer’s record-setting traffic, a dedicated bus lane, or BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system, was already in the works for a scheduled revamp of Highway 22. That will, ideally, pull up short of a five-lane fatty but will likely follow federal guidelines for a Service Level D roadway complete with a combined exclusive bus lane, called a “queue-jumper” by traffic consultants, and an HOV lane.

“That’s the only [road] above our target numbers to my knowledge,” said Sean O’Malley, county engineer and chair of the Transportation Advisory Committee. “In fact, we hit a one-day record this August with more than 25,000 vehicles.”

The plan’s author, Jim Charlier of Boulder-based Charlier Associates, admitted Highway 22 is a bear, and the sooner electeds get it tamed, the better before the state swoops in and mucks it up.

“An issue like 22 is controversial and difficult,” Charlier said. “You saw this summer what is going on with it. Now that shouldn’t serve as a long-term trend. You had a unique situation with pent up travel demand and low gas prices. But with Highway 22 you are already at a load that the road can’t handle. My advice is you either take charge and get ahead of it or WYDOT – an agency that has the authority, capability and money to come in and widen the road – will do it on an economized level. They won’t do an attractive multimodal corridor like you want. Not without local input. You have a chance now to get what you want by working with WYDOT to make sure it’s done right. It doesn’t have to be a five-lane road. That would be terrible. This is one of the most beautiful valleys on earth. Do you really want a five-lane highway built through it?”

As soon as traffic-easing measures are in place on Highway 22, Teton Village Road will also need to be reckoned with. A strategy that hardly ever gets addressed without talk of a north bridge rearing its ugly head, as longtime valley resident John Huyler put it at Monday’s meeting.

O’Malley said the realistic opportunity to put a bridge in place at the north end of 390 likely came and went 15 years ago, but the notion still gets traction off and on. He added a north bridge is better left to a discussion two decades from now and any such guideway would probably not be a “metal mover” but a people mover, possibly a railway of some kind.

Pie charts or pie-in-the-sky dreaming?

A few stated goals in the ITP seem unattainable to some. Paying for them might be even less realistic. The plan states that while current town, county and state revenue could not possibly support the changes outlined in the ITP, a dedicated added penny to local sales tax could help pay for capital expense and maintenance of the county’s future transportation needs with enough left over – half of the estimated $11.2 million annually-generated revenue – for affordable housing funding.

The role of mass transit has been under-addressed thus far in the plan’s progress toward approval. That’s due, in part, to departing transit director Michael Wackerly’s open skepticism of START’s ability to meet ITP benchmarks, and his replacement, Darren Brugmann’s newness. He started the job on September 8.

County Tea Party leader Jeff Hymas took up Wackerly’s concern at Monday’s JIM meeting during the public comment period.

“I think the START guidelines are too detailed and unrealistic,” Hymas said. “If START themselves say, ‘we can’t reach these goals,’ I think it’s important to not approve a plan that can’t be achieved with regard to ridership numbers.”

Hymas claimed no amount of money would double ridership from 2013 numbers by 2024, and then double that figure again by 2035. Indeed, if no enhancements like increased schedule frequency, additional buses or aggressive marketing campaign were put into effect at all, current trends would move ridership from 899,318 (2013) to a projected 1,070,000 in 2024 and 1,220,000 in 2035, according to ITP forecasts. Hardly the massive jumps planners are shooting for.

Assuming WYDOT will bring cash to the party when major valley arteries are beefed up, that leaves START playing an expensive role in the transportation plan. Surveys show voters want free rides for all locals. That would cost an estimated $1 million a year. In-town shuttle expansion would be another quarter mil. Guidelines also call for START’s fleet to grow by 60 buses by 2024 and 120 by 2035. The transit agency’s budget is anticipated to balloon to $8.1 million in 2024, and reach $18 million by 2035.

Urban planner Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns in Brainerd, Minn., who has studied Jackson and is familiar with the Jackson Hole/Teton County Comp Plan, doesn’t think throwing money at our problems is the answer.

“Jackson is never going to be able to spend its way or build its way out of its traffic congestion problems no matter how much money you can afford to spend on it,” Marohn said. “You have to acknowledge what you have is not so much a transportation problem as much as it is a land use problem. Most cities just find a bigger hammer to pound in their nails. But you’ll wind up going broke trying to solve it with engineering and infrastructure.”

Charlier agrees that laying asphalt isn’t the ultimate solution. Hard decisions regarding the overall picture – including commercial development and housing challenges – are where government leaders have to focus their energy.

“There is no way you can build a bus system fast enough to keep up with traffic,” Charlier said. “But you have to do something because you need to remain competitive as an international high-amenity mountain town destination resort. Are you prepared to just stop development? That’s not what I’m hearing from your elected leaders.

“I know you have competition – Park City, Aspen, Telluride – they are also my clients, and they are facing the same problems. If you are going to stay competitive you have to free people of the burden of traffic aggravation. They don’t go on vacation to commute or sit in traffic.” PJH

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