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Wyoming pass landslide brings mountain-sized headache to commuting tourist town workers

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A landslide that wiped out a vital two-lane road in western Wyoming is causing a mountain of headaches for thousands of commuting tourist town workers at the outset of the Yellowstone region’s busy summer season.

After the slide sent both lanes crashing into a ravine near Teton Pass on Saturday, it’s anybody’s guess when Wyoming Highway 22, between Jackson, Wyoming, and eastern Idaho, will reopen.

Compared to other highways in the region, the route over the 8,400-foot (2,560-meter) pass isn’t vital for getting into Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Most visitors don’t go over Teton Pass, and park access remains unimpeded.

But for thousands of daily commuters who work in pricey Jackson and live in more affordable eastern Idaho, the highway is a crucial, twice-daily link.

Here’s what to know as the situation continues to unfold:

Slowly … Then all at once

There were signs the highway was slipping.

When a crack opened and the road dropped a bit Thursday, a quick patch enabled traffic to resume until a mudslide a ways down the road closed the highway again.

That closure turned out to be a good thing. Nobody was driving on the previously cracked section when it tumbled dozens of feet downhill early Saturday.

Landslides like one that hit the famous Big Sur area on the California coast aren’t uncommon in mountainous areas. Sometimes they’re sudden, with deadly results, while others creep and leave folks wondering when they’ll end.

Commuter problem

When this crisis will end is on the minds of many who commute over Teton Pass.

With famous views of the Teton Range, two national parks and major ski resorts nearby, Teton County, Wyoming, is extraordinarily expensive, with the average single-family home recently topping $7 million and the cheapest a hefty $1.3 million, according to one recent report.

That’s far too expensive for many of the teachers, health care workers, public safety officers and others who work in Jackson, the main town in Teton County. They include 20% of the workers at Jackson’s largest year-round employer, St. John’s Health.

Each day, thousands make — or used to make — the half-hour-plus drive over Teton Pass from more affordable communities in eastern Idaho. Commuters are now looking at at least another hour of driving and possibly two through a different route into Wyoming.

“More distance, more time, more gas,” said Amy McCarthy, who lives just over the pass outside Victor, Idaho.

McCarthy normally has a 22-minute commute to her job as director of the Teton Raptor Center in western Jackson Hole, the valley that encompasses Jackson and much of Grand Teton National Park. Now she and about a third of the staff for the rescue center for injured birds of prey face commutes of an hour and a half or more.

Short-term solutions

The Teton Raptor Center, which needs staff on site 24/7, is working with local supporters to see who has room in their homes to put up its employees for a few nights at a time — a discussion many others in Idaho are having with people in Jackson.

“Everyone’s scrambling and mobilizing,” Teton County Commissioner Luther Propst said.

The county is drafting temporary regulations to open more areas for workers to camp, such as in the parking areas at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski area, Propst said.

County officials are also looking at making their thrice-daily Idaho commuter buses free of charge and possibly bringing more buses into service.

“When you do an eight- to 12-hour shift, to put four hours of driving on top of that, you want as much bus service as you can so people can take a nap, maybe,” Propst said.

The crisis is also an opportunity to make sure the buses in service run on useful schedules — one on Monday on a longer-than-usual route was less than one-third full — and focus on enabling more workers to be able to live locally, Teton County Commissioner Wes Gardner said.

“We’re lucky to have the community that we have over in Idaho and the housing that we have over there,” Gardner said. “But when something like this happens it really highlights how that’s kind of a Band-Aid.”

Looking to reopen and rebuild

At least partially reopening the road will take weeks but not months, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

Gov. Mark Gordon has declared an official emergency that will help access additional Federal Highway Administration resources to begin repair work. The Wyoming Department of Transportation has engineers and geologists assessing the site to begin work on a temporary solution to the road closure, Gordon spokesperson Michael Pearlman said Monday.

The first goal is likely to make sure no other slides are imminent and that highway workers don’t accidentally cause new slides, said Bill Panos, a former state Transportation Department director.

“They’ll come up with a variety of different approaches,” Panos said. “The ones that are the quickest and most cost effective and safest will probably be the ones that they’ll go with.”

For now, McCarthy is resigned to very long drives in the summer ahead.

“I’ll be downloading a lot more Audible books,” she said.

By MEAD GRUVER
Associated Press

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