The Scenic Route

Jan. 1, 2006

Nearly 50 years ago, construction of the historic Togwotee Trail was completed, a 38-mile-long road intertwined between Wyoming mountaintops and dense forests serving as the only northwest route into Yellowstone National Park. Today, the roadway that follows an old American Indian trail still remains as it did half a century ago—but with conditions quickly deteriorating.

Nearly 50 years ago, construction of the historic Togwotee Trail was completed, a 38-mile-long road intertwined between Wyoming mountaintops and dense forests serving as the only northwest route into Yellowstone National Park. Today, the roadway that follows an old American Indian trail still remains as it did half a century ago—but with conditions quickly deteriorating.

The scenic Togwotee Trail, which winds along U.S. Highway 26-287, serves as the main tourist and trucking route between Jackson and Dubois, Wyo., into Yellowstone National Park. With highway traffic numbers on the rise, the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) recently began a major seven-year, $100 million reconstruction project that will make critical improvements vital to area residents and visitors.

Facing inadequate drainage problems, steep and unstable slopes and a plethora of potholes and landslides, WYDOT will be dealing with their share of challenges on this project—not to mention that the roadway crosses through one of the most environmentally sensitive regions of the country.

To combat these issues, WYDOT is working closely with socioeconomic and environmental groups and has broken the project into five phases, allowing for close scrutiny of issues and solutions that will best serve motorists and wildlife alike. The first two phases began this year with the Brooks Lake and Buffalo Fork River sections. Construction of the final phase, the Rosie’s Ridge section, will begin in 2010.

The entire reconstruction project will include 38 miles of Superpave asphalt in two 2-in. lifts over 14 in. of crushed base, with the entire corridor consisting of roughly 230,000 tons of asphalt. WYDOT will be road milling most of the old pavement and using it for a temporary traffic surface while constructing the new roadway.

The functional classifications of the roadway will not change, as it will remain a two-lane highway, 12 ft wide in each direction. WYDOT will, however, be adding 8-ft-wide shoulders on each side of the lanes and four pairs of passing lanes.

Being the only highway that goes through Dubois, there were several concerns regarding the road construction and its impact on local businesses. “[Motorists] are either going to drive through that way or they’re not going to come at all—they don’t have any other choices,” Lyle Lamb, P.E., WYDOT resident engineer, told Roads & Bridges.

In order to accommodate motorists, socioeconomic and constructability groups were developed to address construction issues and the effect they would have on tourists and residents. As a result, several parameters where established to better benefit the local community.

“A key parameter was that we stick to a seven-year construction timeline,” said Environmental Coordinator Bob Bonds. “From whenever the first project started, we have seven years to complete it, so that will give us up to 2013 [to complete the project].”

Another established parameter is that stop times—the amount of time traffic is actually stopped on the road during construction—must be limited to no more than 15 minutes. The speed limit also will be reduced during construction from 65 mph to 35 mph in some areas and 45 mph everywhere else, making it more difficult to maintain a 15-minute stop time.

“It’s going to be harder and harder as we get more of the roadway under contract,” said Lamb. “We’re going to be dealing quite a bit with the contractor on maintaining a very high level of mobility for the traveling public.” Along with the established parameters, WYDOT also will be facing difficult environmental conditions, such as high elevations (9,658 ft at its highest point), and a short construction season due to inclement winter weather. The project will see roughly 400 in. of annual snowfall, which usually does not melt until mid-June.

Because the project runs through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, there is a high standard to maintain wildlife and visual attributes to the environment, which will involve minimizing disturbance limits and effects to the area.

“Whenever you start minimizing your disturbances, you limit the contractor on where they can run their equipment, stockpile their materials and conduct their business, and that typically increases the price tag,” said Bonds. “But we also realize that it would be irresponsible for us not to do that in this kind of an environment, so we’re more than happy to take that task on.”

Working with wildlife

In order to balance the needs of the driving public with the environmental restrictions, WYDOT has been working closely with wildlife biologists, the U.S. Forest Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The Togwotee Trail area is home to several wildlife species such as the grizzly bear, which is an endangered species, deer, moose and other diverse wildlife and fish. While working with the environmental groups, WYDOT conducted several studies to learn about the indigenous animal populations and migration patterns and incorporated this knowledge into the design of the roadway.

One such study found that the Jackson Hole moose use a bridge on the western end of the project to cross underneath the highway. As a result, WYDOT has decided to extend the bridge so that the moose will be able to cross on either side of it. “Right now, [the moose] can only cross on the eastern side of the bridge,” said Bonds. “The new bridge will allow animals to cross on either end.”

Rather than mitigating wildlife on this project, WYDOT plans to enhance it, said Bonds. The classification of the roadway will not change, but enhancements will be made in order to make it safer and easier for wildlife movement. For instance, WYDOT will be improving steep roadway slopes by stabilizing hazardous areas and making them more gentle so it will be easier for wildlife to cross and easier for motorists to see the approaching wildlife.

This project also faces wetlands impact, a majority of which is located in the middle of the corridor from the Fourmile Meadows section to the Togwotee Pass section.

According to Bonds, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently in a state of flux as to how they will regulate these wetlands; however, WYDOT plans to replace all wetlands and will end up with a higher percentage than what was there at the start.

To better accommodate wildlife and wetlands, the signed speed limit on the completed roadway will be reduced from 65 mph to 55 mph.

Slowing traffic will help to reduce vehicle-related wildlife mortalities, and it also will give more design latitude to avoid wetlands and archeological sites because roadway curves can be made slightly sharper and cover less area.

Community construction

Construction will soon be under way on the 4.8-mile-long Buffalo Fork River section, and pavement has already been removed from portions of the 9.7-mile-long Brooks Lake section. In the Brooks Lake section, impact on travelers is minimal as WYDOT builds retaining walls to stabilize embankment foundations and repairs a few landslide sections that have caused debris flow and maintenance problems in the past.

Construction of the Buffalo Fork River section will begin this fall and will include timber clearing, rock cutting and embankment stabilization. WYDOT also will be lengthening the bridge span of the Buffalo Fork River Bridge by 115 ft to accommodate wildlife that use this area for crossing.

Because Dubois and Jackson have largely tourist-based economies, there are concerns as to how this project will affect their tourism business. Because of these concerns, for the first time in its history, WYDOT is committed to spending 1% of the total project cost on marketing, according to Cody Beers, WYDOT District 5 public involvement specialist.

As a part of the marketing strategy, WYDOT contracted with a marketing firm in Colorado and set up a website ( and a toll-free number to keep tourists updated on the progress of construction and expected delays.

“We put together the multi-year marketing plan to mitigate the impact that [the construction] might have on tourism coming through this area,” said Sheri Howe, public involvement specialist for WYDOT.

When it’s all said and done, the historic beauty of the Togwotee Trail will be restored and WYDOT will have a safe, efficient and beautiful roadway that was built with the concerns of the driving public and natural environment in mind.

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