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It’s been a tough winter on Teton Pass. How are Wydaho residents responding?

Will Walkey / Wyoming Public Media

It has been a tough winter on Teton Pass. The critical route between Jackson Hole and Teton Valley, Idaho, has seen numerous closures recently. Often, they happen because semi-trucks and vehicles with trailers illegally try to make the drive and then get stuck in the snow. Wyoming Public Radio’s Will Walkey spoke with Kate Ready of the Jackson Hole News & Guide about how government officials and commuters are reacting to this frustrating situation.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Will Walkey (WW): Let's start with an obvious question for folks who might not know. Why is Teton Pass so important to the Jackson Hole Community? Why is it such a big deal when it closes?

Kate Ready (KR): Teton Pass has become a really important commuter route now that home prices have skyrocketed. In Jackson, I think the last average was about $5 million. The workforce has really moved over into Idaho. And so to get to and from their homes, they're using Teton Pass. Because in Jackson, the wages are higher. They're better. So they're traveling over that high elevation.

And for businesses that are building in Jackson – we're seeing a lot of construction, new housing, going up – those trucks are using Teton Pass to bring those building materials over, and that is some of what we're seeing get stuck. And then also, it's a hotspot for recreators. People access the backcountry through Teton Pass. So the parking lot at the top – and getting there to and from – can be congested in the morning while commuters are also trying to go to work.

WW: Teton Pass has been closing ever since Teton Pass has existed, essentially, but has this winter felt worse?

KR: I feel like anecdotally, law enforcement, towing companies [and] commuters are saying and feeling that it's getting worse. Meaning the trucks that are getting stuck are now becoming an everyday occurrence. Just this week, during peak commuter hours, trucks were jackknifing and blocking the pass. There's also an element of Wyoming Highway Patrol being a little understaffed, that may be making things worse.

I think it's also the winter we've had. The conditions on the pass have been icy. Trucks maybe would have made it up okay in other winters, but the weather and the conditions this time, in the last few months, have been dicey for even regular cars. And so they're kind of realizing too late when they can't turn around like, ‘Oh, I'm not going to make it.’

And with the weather, also statewide, I-80 has closed a few times for days on end this winter. So these trucks are being rerouted sometimes to Jackson, where their map applications – you know, Google Maps – are telling them, ‘Hey, go this way. This route is open to you.’ And they're not showing them these trailer and weight restrictions.

WW: So what are local law enforcement officials trying to do to solve this issue?

KR: Well, the main thing we've seen in action is they're dedicating more resources to the pass. So Wyoming Highway Patrol has one Trooper [where Teton Pass] is their station, essentially in the winter. And then the Teton County Sheriff's Office has also dedicated resources to patrolling the pass.

As far as other local resources, I mean, it's a little tough because Teton Pass is in state jurisdiction – there's not a whole lot the county can do. Senator Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) in 2021, proposed to mail violators citations. So an automatic system that would take patrol and dispatch out of it if they're weighing motion-system-detected hitched vehicles. What he told me [is] people in the Senate were concerned that big brother was going to track you and [there would be] cameras all along State Highways.

Senator Gierau said he may take another stab at that legislation again, but as far as increasing the signs, or the fines of citations, there's really not a whole lot the county can do. So it might just need to be more state funding for patrol resources in Teton County.

WW: You mentioned that there's not a whole lot the county can do. There's also, of course, not a whole lot residents can do. And I'm wondering how commuters in the Jackson Hole area have been reacting to this pretty frustrating situation this winter?

KR: Yes. So I think that has been unique to this winter. We're seeing a lot of anger kind of being crowd sourced on Instagram. There's an account from a Teton Valley resident – so, someone who lives over in Idaho but commutes into Jackson – and this person has started an Instagram page where they're capturing videos from either ones that they're taking as they are driving the pass, or that other people and drivers are sending to them, of violators.

And some of the content on there is pretty egregious. In the videos, you're hearing expletives from commuters. People are posting videos calling on the county for action and showing high school students who can't get home, and they're finally getting home at like 10:30 [or] 11 at night and have to go to school the next day. So I really feel like the community angst is at a high. And I feel like understandably so if you just see the bigger picture of [residents] can't afford to live in Jackson. They are the workforce. They are the lifeblood – the economy of the community. But they're the ones taking the brunt of these closures. So I think we're seeing some of that pain.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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