Wyoming has been awarded a $16.6 million grant to rebuild the final segment of the Beartooth Highway, a section that's only 1.6 miles long but winds along a cliff that drops off precipitously into Beartooth Creek.
To work on that steep sidehill, engineers will design retaining walls to hold the road material so the highway can be widened without blasting into the rock cliffs, said Gregg Fredrick, chief engineer at the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
"We don't get to design and construct roads like this much anymore," Fredrick said. "It's kind of exciting that this last 1.6 miles has some funding and we will get this completed."
The seventh phase of reconstruction extends from milepost 24.5, just west of the Clay Butte Lookout turnoff, east to milepost 26.1 near Beartooth Lake at an elevation of about 8,500 feet. The work will include widening the road, improving road surface and drainage, replacing substandard bridges, constructing retaining walls to minimize environmental impacts, adding guardrails and signage and adding roadside pullouts. The reconstruction will also include two 3-foot shoulders on each side to accommodate bicyclists.
That means more delays for summer tourists driving the route in 2020 and 2021 when work will take place. The highway is closed in the winter but typically reopens to automobiles the Saturday before Memorial Day.
The route, known for its zig-zagging climb to almost 11,000 feet while passing through a tundra-like landscape dotted by mountain lakes, connects Red Lodge to Cooke City and the East Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
The federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant will bring the entire stretch of Highway 212 up to modern standards and will complete the reconstruction of the full 67-mile length of the highway.
“This work and these funds are vital to ensure the integrity of the road in years to come,” said Bill Panos, WYDOT director, in a statement.
WYDOT is part of the Beartooth Steering Committee, which also includes the Montana Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Yellowstone National Park, U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming and Montana Congressional staff, and other federal, state, and local officials, tourism and community development organizations, and several nongovernmental organizations. The group has been working together to address the needs of the Beartooth Highway for nearly 25 years.
“This project wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration of everyone involved," Fredrick said in a statement. "The road is not included in the state highway system, which means a partnership like this is vital to getting this road reconstructed.”
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In other words, even though the road runs through a corner of Wyoming the state does not claim ownership of the route. Instead, the National Park Service has the responsibility to maintain the route.
Crews are already working on a section of road between milepost 28.4 to 31.5 — between Long Lake and the Top of the World Store — which officials anticipate will be completed by fall 2018. That project's price tag is $13.8 million and addresses similar issues.
When first contacted about the grant last week, WYDOT officials were unaware of the award that was touted in a press release from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Tester helped secure the funding.
“The Beartooth Highway is the most scenic gateway to Yellowstone and draws tourists from around the globe who fuel Montana’s outdoor economy,” Tester said in his news release. “God doesn’t make places like this anymore and we ought to keep them accessible. Finishing construction ensures folks can continue to visit the picturesque park and enjoy some of the best hiking, biking, and fishing Montana has to offer.”
The Beartooth Highway is designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as an "All-American" road because of its one-of-a-kind features.
“The highway is considered a destination unto itself and provides an exceptional travel experience connecting Yellowstone National Park, the country's first, with Red Lodge," said Sherry Weamer, director of the Red Lodge Area Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.
In Tester's news release he also reiterated his disapproval of Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke's proposal to raise entrance fees at parks like Yellowstone.
In October Tester said in a press release, "Americans already own these parks and they shouldn't have to empty their wallets to enjoy them. Glacier and Yellowstone should be accessible to all of us. This decision will price Montana families out of our public lands, and hurt local economies, which thrive thanks to our National Parks."
Last week while in Browning, Zinke, a former Montana congressman, said he plans to go ahead with the fee increases that would triple or double fees that travelers had paid in the past. He reiterated that plan during a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.
"When you give discounted or free passes to elderly, fourth graders, veterans, disabled, and you do it by the carload, there's not a whole lot of people who actually pay at our front door," Zinke said. "So, we're looking at ways to make sure we have more revenue in the front door of our parks themselves."