By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
A representative from the Wyoming Department of Transportation Tuesday said the agency is prepared to temporarily take over the responsibility to plow a section of highway near Cooke City, Montana.
Maintenance of the nine-mile segment of Highway 212 near the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National park has traditionally been the responsibility of the Park Service. However, since flooding on June 13 took out several large segments of the road between Mammoth and Cooke City, the Park Service’s priorities are to make sure residents of Cooke City and Silver Gate aren’t cut off.
WYDOT district supervisor Pete Hallsten said Tuesday WYDOT is working with Yellowstone National Park to ensure residents of Cooke City are not cut off in the event of a snowstorm.
Hallesten gave his comments at the annual State Transportation Improvement Program meeting, which was held at the Park County Courthouse. They were echoed by Cody Beers, spokesperson for WYDOT.
“We’re trying to be good neighbors,” said Beers.
But the question of why WYDOT doesn’t already maintain a highway that runs within its borders is a larger, more complicated issue.
WYDOT Not Responsible For Wyoming Road
The nine-mile segment of U.S. Highway 212, locally known as “the plug,” crosses the state line between Wyoming and Montana before continuing over the Beartooth Pass. Although 22 miles of the “Beartooth Highway” is in Wyoming, WYDOT has never claimed responsibility for maintaining it.
The Highway was born after urging from citizens of Red Lodge, Montana, who wanted access to Yellowstone National Park. In January of 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed the National Park Approaches Act, which allowed for the construction of the highway between Red Lodge and Cooke City.
However, no federal money was provided for the maintenance of the road. The National Park Service urged the Montana State Highway Commission to take on responsibility for maintenance, reasoning that the road was built on the request of Montana citizens and connected two Montana communities. But since the road was an approach to a national park, the commission argued that the federal government should maintain the highway.
In 1945, Congress passed legislation that gave the Park Service the authority to maintain the highway using Forest Service funds.
“Yellowstone has been maintaining that piece of road from the northeast gate to the Wyoming-Montana border, which is clear up, almost over the top of the (Beartooth Pass) right at the Wyoming border, since that road was built,” said Beers.
But Wyoming was never included in the plans to maintain the 35-mile section of the Beartooth Highway that dips south of the Montana border.
“We don’t plan to have a long-term commitment to that area,” said Beers. “We’ve got our own roads to take care of and maintain. We don’t have the funds for a long-term commitment to that area, because it’s not our road.”
Beers said that taking on the permanent responsibility to maintain that stretch of road would be akin to accepting an unfunded mandate.
“And we don’t have the money to do it,” he said. “And it’s a piece of road that, by virtue of its location, takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money to maintain.”
Just In Case
Yellowstone officials have offered a target date of October 15 to complete repairs on Highway 89, the road that connects Cooke City to Mammoth. This would allow residents to access the rest of the world, and vice versa.
“But we work in construction all the time and things don’t always go according to plan,” Beers said.
Although October is not necessarily a month in which snow events might close roads, Beers said WYDOT is committed to plowing “the plug,” should snow create dangerous travel conditions, until the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone opens to traffic.
“We’ve stayed very steadfast in our commitment to the good people of Cooke City,” he said. “We’ll make sure you have access to the outside world.”