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Jackson Hole Airport Reopens With New Eco-Friendly $44 Million Runway

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

The busiest international airport in the state is back in business.

After a 78-day closure, the Jackson Hole Airport – with its new, eco-friendly, $44 million runway – resumed service Tuesday.

And the first flight, an American Airlines jet, received a hero’s welcome complete with water cannons christening its arrival.

Meanwhile the staff at the airport picked up pretty much where they left off, according to Kevin Dunnigan, the airport’s communications assistant.

“It was kind of like a normal Tuesday, in terms of enplanements and passengers coming through,” Dunnigan told Cowboy State Daily. “But we’re kind of shifting gears now as a staff, from reopening to getting ready for the July Fourth holiday.”

The midsummer celebration is typically one of the busier travel times of the year for the only airport in the country located in a national park (the airport merged with Grand Teton National Park in 1950). Because of the popularity of Grand Teton and Yellowstone in the summer, air traffic in Jackson peaks in the summer.

“This weekend, and then into July Fourth, we’ll see those numbers tick up a little bit,” Dunnigan said.

The Jackson Hole Airport hosts four major airlines year-round – Alaska, American, Delta and United – and in the summer months, Allegiant, Frontier and Sun Country Airlines offer direct flights between Jackson and Denver.

So the closure of the airport for major renovations did cause a bit of a dent in the local economy, according to Dunnigan.

“It definitely had an impact, but we’ve seen, just anecdotally, that the tourists are still coming,” he said, pointing out that the majority of visitors coming to Jackson choose to drive rather than fly.

For those who do arrive by plane (and that’s a significant number – in 2019, the airport saw around 455,000 passengers), their aircraft will be landing on a state-of-the-art runway made by recycling the material that was torn up from the previous runway.

Airport communications Director Meg Jenkins told Cowboy State Daily earlier this year that by milling the old runway, it would save thousands of dollars in materials and fuel.

“That part is estimated to keep about 8,500 trucks off our local roadways, and save 187,000 gallons of fuel,” Jenkins said.

Additionally, an eco-friendly drainage system was built into the project, filtering runoff from the tarmac through layers of rock and soil.

“This runway, to my knowledge, will be the most environmentally respectful runway with those drain systems and filtration of any runway that I’m aware of in the United States,” said Jim Elwood, Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Airport.

And although the major renovations are complete, Dunnigan said there’s more work to be done.

“During the closure, we started first demolishing and now remodeling the restaurant that we have on site,” he said. “We’re looking at having that completed by November of this year.”

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Due To Pilot Shortage, SkyWest To Remove Seats To Allow Pilots With Lower-Level Certifications

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

SkyWest, like all airlines in the United States right now, is in the midst of a pilot shortage. 

But the regional airline that services most of the airports in Wyoming has come up with a unique idea to stretch their resources.

SkyWest, under a new subsidiary called “SkyWest Charter,” has made an application with the U.S. Department of Transportation to modify a number of Canadair jets to only hold 30 passengers, thereby allowing pilots with lower-level certifications to operate the aircraft as a “public charter.”

“Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport here in Rock Springs was listed in (SkyWest’s) DOT application for a Part 135 charter certificate that would allow them to fly a 30-seat CRJ 200,” said Devon Brubaker, Director for the airport. “So it’s the same planes they fly today, but with 30 seats instead of 50 seats.”

The Part 135 rules are more relaxed than the Part 121 rules that all scheduled air carriers operate under. The difference is that pilots operating aircraft under Part 135 do not need to hold an airline transport pilot certificate, which requires them to have logged at least 1,500 flight hours. 

A representative for SkyWest told Cowboy State Daily that the company’s standards have not gone down — rather, the charter service would simply provide additional regulatory flexibility.

“It is our full intent to hold this new entity to the same high standards of safety, reliability, and service that the SkyWest name has come to represent,” SkyWest’s spokesperson said in a statement.

For Rock Springs’ regional airport, the new flexibility is good news.

“To the best of our knowledge at this time, it looks like it would be used to supplement our service as an opportunity to get us back to where we were pre-pandemic, with at least two daily flights and maybe more,” Brubaker told Cowboy State Daily. 

He said that between 2016 and 2019, boardings at Sweetwater County’s airport increased 57% – then came COVID-19.

“Obviously the pandemic decimated air travel across the country,” Brubaker said. “We started to get back to our 2019 numbers in November, December of 2021. And then the pilot shortage reared its ugly head the last week of December, early January.”

Brubaker said that in order to maintain consistency and reduce the possibility of canceled flights due to a shortage of pilots, all the airlines started to reduce the number of available flights. In Rock Springs, that meant that SkyWest dropped down to one flight a day, which Brubaker said is currently running at about 86% capacity.

“In our industry, and 86% load factor might as well be full,” he said. “That basically means that on peak travel days, you’re not going to find seats unless you book early.”

“We see travel demand far outpacing what we saw in 2019,” Brubaker continued. “We just don’t have the capacity.”

While SkyWest’s charter service option may be good news for Rock Springs, on the other side of the state it could be a detriment.

“We used to have three flights a day, every day,” said Todd Chatfield, director of the Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport in Gillette. “We’re down to two flights a day, except for Tuesdays and Thursdays when we’re down to one plane a day.”

Chatfield told Cowboy State Daily that, like Rock Springs, flights in Gillette are filling up at around an 85% load factor, with planes that have 50 seats.

“If we went back to three flights a day with the 30 passenger seats, that would still be a loss of 10 seats (per day),” Chatfield said.

However, he said that there is a possibility that SkyWest could continue providing 50-seat planes and bring in the smaller capacity aircraft at busier times.

“I did sign a public comment deal, and I did say that we were in favor of this, but that’s when I thought we would just keep the extra planes,” Chatfield said. “They wouldn’t take my 50-passenger planes away and bring in 30.”

Chatfield acknowledged that SkyWest’s leaders are trying to address the pilot shortage in any way they can.

“That’s really encouraging that they’re trying to find different ways to serve Wyoming,” he said. “But if they start taking my 50 seats and bringing in 30, and they don’t bring (what we get) in the same amount of planes I get now, that’s gonna hurt me.”

“We’ve been assured by SkyWest airlines that their commitment is to improving our service, not hurting our service here in Sweetwater County, and around the state as well,” Brubaker said.

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WYDOT To Politicians: Don’t Put Your Campaign Signs In Illegal Places

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By Ellen Fike and Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

As the candidate filing period wraps up Friday for Wyoming’s primary election in August, the Wyoming Department of Transportation is reminding candidates to avoid placing their signs on highways, roads, and public rights-of-way.

Although it could be tempting to place a political sign on the median or the shoulder of Interstate 80 or some other busy roadway for maximum exposure, it’s not a good idea and, more importantly, it’s against the law, the department said.

Signs can pose a serious safety issue, not to mention creating ill will toward candidates who blatantly ignore the law in the pursuit of elected office.

But it’s not just campaigns that are the problem, WYDOT spokesman Doug McGee said. People who advertise for garage sales and real estate are guilty too.

Even declarations of love, no matter how sincere, cannot be placed on a sign and put in a public right-of-way.

“It’s a safety hazard, mainly,” McGee told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “The signs we put in the rights-of-way are for directional and informational purposes and are designed to be as safe as possible in the event of a crash, whether it falls forward or goes over it.”

The Lamont Incident

Jonathan Downing, a veteran of many Wyoming campaigns, recalled a scuffle between a candidate he was working for and the Wyoming Department of Transportation over a road sign back in 1994.

WYDOT had announced it was taking down a population sign for the town of Lamont, north of Rawlins, as it was no longer an incorporated community. 

A bed and breakfast owner who lived in the community of three said the road sign was a point of pride and passersby stopped to take a photo next to it and some ended up staying at her business.

Rob Wallace, a candidate for U.S. House in 1994, announced he was going to re-install the road sign as its removal was an example of government overreach.

Downing said Wallace was told if he re-installed the sign he would be arrested.

The campaign jumped on it.

“We thought it would be a great news story if Rob was arrested putting up a new road sign so we went ahead with the strategy,” Downing said.

He said ultimately the planned was foiled, however, as the old sign was never removed by WYDOT.

“I think Rob was relieved, in retrospect, that he wasn’t arrested,” Downing said. “We thought it would be hilarious but, then again, we weren’t the ones who would have been thrown into the hoosegow.”

The campaign ended up making commercials out of the incident anyway, Downing said, which were viewed positively by voters.

“The campaign ads were awesome,” he said. “I still have them on VHS along with some vintage episodes of Beverly Hills 90210.”

Back To The Future

McGee and fellow WYDOT spokeswoman Jordan Achs would not share the names of the biggest campaign culprits so far in 2022 when it came to placing election signs in appropriate places. But both agreed it is common to see signs in the wrong places all over the state during an election season.

If a sign is found to be in an inappropriate place, WYDOT workers will remove it and contact the person on the sign, telling them to come get their sign and take it somewhere else.

“We’re trying to work with them to get it in a better location where they can still show their support, just without it being in the right of way,” Achs said.

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Colorado State Patrol Officer Nearly Hit While Performing Traffic Stop on I-25

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

It was a close call for a Colorado State Trooper on Tuesday morning when a vehicle slammed into a car on Interstate 25 that was pulled over for a traffic stop.

Dashcam footage from the trooper’s vehicle captured the harrowing crash and just how close a call it was for Colorado State Patrol Trooper Travis Hood.

Hood had just pulled over the driver of a 2010 Kia Sedan and was walking back to his vehicle after collecting the driver’s license of the occupant in order to write a citation.

Mere seconds later, a 2008 Dodge Minivan careened into the stationary vehicle subsequently launching the Kia into a concrete barrier wall.

Hood was uninjured in the collision. The occupant of the Kia sustained moderate injuries and was transported to a local hospital.

The driver of the minivan sustained minor injuries and was cited for careless driving.

“Every day law enforcement officers and other roadway workers put themselves at risk in an effort to improve safety on our roadways,” said Colonel Matthew Packard, chief of the Colorado State Patrol.

“Sadly incidents like these happen with incredible frequency and we are fortunate that a bigger tragedy didn’t play out yesterday on I-25,” he said. “There is no excuse for driving past any stopped vehicle at this rate of speed.

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Rolling Closures Help Keep Wyo Traffic Moving During Interstate Emergencies

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Department of Transportation has a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to keeping cars and trucks “moving” during a weather event like the ones that slowed travel on interstates over the last few weekends.

Traffic on Interstate 80 in southwestern Wyoming was at a standstill for much of the weekend due to a storm that caused 91 accidents between Thursday and Friday.

Those types of closures, which happen often during the winter months, can cause real problems for locals who live off the interstate and can put a strain on service stations, restaurants and hotels in communities where the traffic is backed up.

“When you shut down a road based on weather, trucks keep coming from either the west or the east,” said WYDOT Director Luke Reiner. “Eventually the town where you shut down the road because of the storm, it fills up with trucks. So then you’ve got to go back to the population center that is NOT affected by the storm and close the road there, so that you can start stacking trucks and handling the interstate traffic, because there’s no room at the road where (the closure is) at.” 

Reiner used a hypothetical closure in Rawlins as an example to describe a process the department calls “rolling closures.”

“Let’s say that we close the road in Rawlins and it’s closed eastbound and westbound,” he said. “So you close in Rawlins, and all of the traffic keeps coming and coming and coming. And finally, Rawlins is filled with trucks, and there’s no place for them to sleep, and there’s no hotel rooms for the people traveling and cars. And so then we back up to where we close the road in Rock Springs. That’s a rolling closure.”

But for Wyoming residents who want to avoid the rolling closures and use other highways to get from one part of the state to another, WYDOT has a tool it uses to keep traffic moving during storm events.

“We do have a very good program called W-TAP, which is the Wyoming Travel Authorization Program,” Reiner explained. “And a portion of that is permission to travel — for Wyoming residents — during a rolling closure.”

Reiner said that Wyoming residents can sign up for W-TAP on the Department’s website (click here for the link), which will give them an authorization code to travel on roads that are off-limits due to a rolling closure. He explained that residents don’t receive the authorization instantly, they must submit their driver’s license number and then get approval from WYDOT.

“Using that example I just gave you, the road between Rawlins and Rock Springs, that would be fine,” Reiner said, meaning that the weather impact would be in Rawlins, and the highway between Rock Springs and Rawlins would still be safe to drive. “We don’t care if you’re on that road, if you are going to stay in Rawlins. So if you want to run to Rawlins, and then you want to go north to Muddy Gap and go to Casper, we want you to do that. 

“But the way you get authority to go around the gate, is you sign up for W-TAP, and specifically sign up for rolling closure authorization” he continued. “Because then we’ll send you a secret code, and you give it to the nice trooper at the gate, and he’ll let you go by.”

Another scenario that WYDOT deals with during snow events has to do with local residents who aren’t trying to use the interstate to cross the state – they’re simply trying to get home. Reiner said that there’s a program called Wyoming Authorized Travel that addresses that issue.

“Sometimes we close a gate – but we only have so many gates, and it’s possible for the first 10 miles beyond the gate, that the road is fine,” Reiner said. “If you live in that 10 miles, you may want to go home. And the WAT gives you permission to go around the gate and go to your house. And the WATs are issued from mile post to mile post. And again, you can sign up for it. And again, it’s a tool to help you move around the state effectively during snowstorms.”

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Wyoming Travel Runs Smoothly After Weekend Of Accidents, Halted Traffic

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By Cowboy State Daily

Traffic was running smoothly across Wyoming on Monday as a storm front that rocked the state over the weekend with hurricane-force winds abated.

Wyoming Department of Transportation road condition reports showed highway traffic moving well, a sharp contrast to a weekend that saw hundred of vehicles stopped behind highway gates because of high winds and drifting and blowing snow.

The impacts were the greatest in southern Wyoming, where sections of Interstate 80 remained closed throughout most of the weekend. The Wyoming Highway Patrol said it received reports of 91 accidents on the highway between Rawlins and the Utah State line between Thursday and Friday alone.

However, the storm’s impacts were also felt in northeastern and central Wyoming, where winds of up to 70 mph battered travelers and generated blowing and drifting snow and icy road conditions.

Sections of Interstate 25 were closed by the weather and although some sections remained open, travel was treacherous, according to witnesses.

“The road was a sheet of ice, and our bus driver — who was fantastic — was having a really hard time keeping the bus on the road,” said Kennedy Corr, assistant coach for the Cody Drama Club, said of the trip from Cheyenne to Cody on Saturday. “The wind was blowing so hard that it was literally moving the bus on the ice.”

Corr and the club members were in Cheyenne for the state Thespian Festival, which ended Saturday. When preparing to leave, the team found that many of the highways in and out of Cheyenne were closed.

“You could go south and you could go east, but you couldn’t go north or west. And we waited to see if it would melt at all – it didn’t,” she said. “It actually got worse, because then the interstate closed from Orin Junction (near Douglas) to Casper.”

The road conditions forced the group to travel north toward Lusk on Wyoming Highway 85 and it ultimately got to the interstate through Guernsey.

Further north, near Gillette, the weather forced the closure of Wyoming Highway 50 south of Gillette, where a snowplow became stuck in steep drifts.

However, warmer temperatures cleared most of the state’s roads by Monday afternoon and conditions were expected to remain mild until Tuesday, when some snow and winds were forecast for western and central Wyoming.

Wyoming Highway Patrol Sgt. Jeremy Beck did not return Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment on Monday.

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Weird Frankenstein-Looking Truck/Airplane Combo Spotted on Interstate 80

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

Motorists traveling along Interstate 80 on Wednesday may have seen an unusual vehicle traveling down the highway.

It was a hybrid. 

Not that type of hybrid. Those are everywhere.

This one was a combo truck/airplane that kind of looked like an older Space Shuttle that was cut in half and then put on wheels.

The Frankenstein-vehicle is actually a 1943 Douglas DC-3 aircraft that was used by the U.S. Navy during World War II in South America. 

A family from Michigan bought the plane in a junkyard after it was destroyed in a tornado and welded it onto an International truck frame. After a lot of work, it became street legal.

Now the “Fabulous Flamingo” is fairly well-known in offbeat RV circles.

What it was doing in Wyoming is not known — at least by us.

But the Wyoming Highway Patrol Association shared the photo on Facebook and fans shared what they knew about it.

Our favorite comment was from Amy Varland who called it the “turducken of trucks.”

One fan shared a photo of it gassing up in Rock Springs while another showed it in action from Iowa two weeks ago.

Why build such a vehicle?

Aviation appears to be in the creator’s blood. He’s a pilot, mechanic, and aviation inspector.

“I always wanted to build one, since I was 12-years-old, and I just wanted to make an airplane out of a motor home,” said Gino Lucci from Nashville, Michigan. “The truck won’t fly, but the airplane drives.”

It’s probably good for business too.  He sells vintage airplane parts from the 1920s through the 1960s.  

If you are excited to see what the interior looks like, you might be disappointed if you were expecting something amazing.

It looks kind of plane (pardon the pun).

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder so this is a no judgment zone.

It does have a bathroom complete with a working bathtub so there’s that bonus.

For a much more in depth look at the Fabulous Flamingo, watch the video below.

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Wyoming Road Construction Update: No Holiday For Road Construction

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The Fourth of July holiday weekend may be coming up, but road construction knows no holidays — so be prepared for delays and stopped traffic across the state during your weekend travels.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation’s road condition website shows that dozens of construction projects with the potential to slow and stop traffic are still underway around the state.

On Interstate 80, delays are expected east of Cheyenne thanks to a bridge rehabilitation project, and between Cheyenne and Laramie because of pavement marking projects. Construction projects will reduce travel to one lane west of Laramie, while delays are also expected near Elk Mountain.

On Interstate 25, delays are expected south of Cheyenne because of a bridge rehabilitation project. Similar work will also delay traffic south of Douglas and near Casper. Paving on the interstate near Kaycee could also result in 20-minute delays, the department said.

On Interstate 90, bridge repairs east of Moorcroft could lead to travel delays.

A number of projects are also underway on state and federal highways. Work causing delays in travel can be expected in the following areas:

Wyoming Highway 296 northwest of Cody, expect delays;

Wyoming Highway 120 north of Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes;

Wyoming Highway 120 south of Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic; 

U.S. Highway 14/16/20 north of Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;

U.S. Highway 14A between Cody and Powell, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 14A near Byron, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 310/Wyoming Highway 789 near Cowley, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;

U.S. Highway 14A/310/Wyoming Highway 789 northeast of Powell, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 16/20/Wyoming Highway 789 north of Worland, delays of up to 15 minutes;

U.S. Highway 26/287 near Moran Junction, delays of up to 20 minutes;

U.S. Highway 26/287 between Moran Junction and Dubois, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 189/191/26/89 south of Jackson, expect delays of up to 20 minutes between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.;

U.S. Highway 189/191 southwest of Jackson, delays of up to 10 minutes;

U.S. Highway 89 between Thayne and Alpine Junction, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;

U.S. Highway 20, Wyoming Highway 789 near Shoshone, delays of up to 20 minutes;

Wyoming Highway 372/374 near Rock Springs, delays of up to 10 minutes, stopped traffic;

U.S. Highway 20, Wyoming Highway 789 near Shoshone, delays of up to 20 minutes;

U.S. Highway 287 northwest of Lander, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;

U.S. Highway 20/26 west of Casper, delays of up to 20 minutes;

U.S. Highway 20/26/87 in Casper, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 85 between Lingle and Lusk, expect delays;

Wyoming Highway 211 north of Cheyenne, expect delays, and

U.S. Highway 85 south of Cheyenne, expect delays.

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Military Truck Carrying Ammunition Catches Fire on I-80

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

Thanks to the Uinta County Fire Department, a disaster was averted on Monday afternoon when a military truck carrying ammunition caught fire on Interstate 80 outside of Evanston.

After the truck caught fire, the Wyoming Highway Patrol closed Interstate 80 as the fire department battled the blaze, which all but destroyed the cab of the truck.

The cargo containers which held the ammunition were not breached and the firefighters put out the blaze without any injuries.

After the fire was extinguished the military convoy — minus one truck — was able to continue its journey.

“We were headed to Evanston and passed it before any emergency vehicles were there,” said Susan Lallatin on Facebook.  “Guys were running with fire extinguishers! Great job putting it out.”

Todd Ranker, a motorist from Illinois who was stuck behind the burning truck told Cowboy State Daily he was concerned everything was going to explode.

“I thought it was going to be exactly like the movie ‘The Naked Gun’ where that missile hit the fireworks stand and everything blew up,” Ranker said.

“My wife and I watched that movie a couple weeks ago and I told her this is like deja vu or karma or something,” he said.

“The wreckage looked like an everyday scene in Chicago. I need to move out here to God’s country,” he added.

If the story sounds familiar, just last week a Humvee — also in a military convoy — caught fire during rush hour on a Friday afternoon in Utah.

There were no injuries reported in that accident either.

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Funds To Drill 1.3 Mile Tunnel Through Teton Pass On Wish List For WYDOT

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

It’s kind of like making a list for Santa Claus at Christmas.

At least, that’s the way it sounds when Wyoming Department of Transportation Director Luke Reiner starts listing the large-scale projects that the state is pitching to be paid for with President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

“The guidance we received, in terms of this infrastructure bill, was ‘Don’t send us your maintenance projects – think outside the box, send us some bigger, more high dollar items that you would like to build if you had the opportunity,’” he said. 

It’s an exciting list, by anyone’s standards. Some of the more imaginative plans involve tunnels through Teton Pass and through the Wind River Canyon.

And maybe a rerouting of a particularly treacherous section of I-80 near Elk Mountain.

“What that does for the nation, is it provides the opportunity for that for I-80 to be open a lot more on any given year, because that’s the area we always closed,” Reiner explained. “So you reroute it along Highway 30.”

And that tunnel through Teton Pass? It’s not as outlandish as it may seem.

“There was actually a study that was done, I want to say it was in 2008, to look at the feasibility of that,” Reiner said. “I think there’s 1.3 miles, it starts halfway up the mountain, wherever that is, and it goes right through.”

And there are many benefits to such a tunnel, according to Reiner. 

“One, it avoids the avalanche-prone area, and that would help really make that road more passable,” he said, pointing out that in a part of the state where the cost of living is outlandish for workers, that stretch of highway plays an important role in the economy by getting workers to and from their jobs.

“It’s not lost on us that that has become a major commuter route for employees who work in Jackson and live in Idaho,” Reiner said. “The average daily traffic on that road is one of the highest in our state.”

Other projects on the “wish list” include:

I-80 electric vehicle charging stations;
Statewide airport Improvements;
Maintenance for the Beartooth Highway in northwest Wyoming;
Critical highway and bridge repairs for Interstate 80, along with additional truck climbing lanes and truck parking;
Wildlife connectivity and hazard mitigation projects, and
Increasing the capacity on Wyoming Highwy 22 outside of grand Teton National Park.

Reiner pointed out the big projects on the department’s “wish list” aren’t what the department would normally prioritize.

“You know, our focus in the state, based on budget, is maintaining the assets we currently have,” Reiner said.

He added the proposed infrastructure plan would not make money available for necessary maintenance projects that are currently backlogged because of the state’s current budget deficit.

But the “wish list” may actually be moot if the U.S. House and Senate can’t agree on the infrastructure bill itself.

“Remember, this bill has not passed through Congress,” Reiner said. “The Republicans have a counter-proposal for significantly less money. And we don’t know what the final outcome will be.”

So in the meantime, Reiner says that the department will continue to focus on what the state’s current needs are.

“Our focus remains on maintaining the assets we have with available resources,” he said.

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