Cody business owners worried about slow fix for crumbling Yellowstone road

Traffic in October moves along a single lane of the road between Sylvan Pass and Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone National Park. A portion of the road washed away in May, and repairs are not expected to begin until summer 2012 at the earliest. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate - click to enlarge)

By Ruffin Prevost

CODY, WYO. — Repairs to a partially washed-out section of road between Sylvan Pass and Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone National Park will not begin until at least the middle of next year, leaving some Cody business owners worried that further damage could shut down the road entirely.

Part of the eastbound lane along a section of road known as “Nine Mile,” near Sedge Bay, was washed away in mid-May, just days after the park’s East Entrance opened for the summer season.

Like some other spots in the park, including a portion of road along the Lamar River near Soda Butte Creek, the Nine Mile section has a history of instability. It had been previously fitted with monitoring gear by federal highway workers to track shifts in the roadbed, said Yellowstone spokesman Dan Hottle.

That monitoring equipment was embedded in the section of road that washed out during the spring thaw, reducing the road to a single lane governed by two traffic signals on an automated timer. Concrete barricades separate traffic from the eroded section.

The washout resulted from “a combination of the geological rock structure underneath that shifts, Yellowstone Lake wave action, the steep slope of the hillside and water runoff,” Hottle said in an email.

Yellowstone National Park road crews and avalanche experts work to clear Sylvan Pass of more than 20 feet of snow from a May 11 slide that injured no one but partially buried a park vehicle. The slide temporarily closed the pass to vehicle traffic. (NPS photo)

Repairs to the road could cost close to $1 million and are likely to require construction of a retaining wall along the eastbound lane, where the road borders Yellowstone Lake, Hottle said.

He said the National Park Service has received three bids on the repair job that are being evaluated by park personnel and the Federal Highway Administration, which continues to monitor the Nine Mile section.

Because repairs were not a “quick fix,” they could not be completed this year, he said, adding that the Park Service is “looking at applying for funds through an emergency funding program” under FHA.

Hottle said repairs won’t start until summer 2012 at the earliest, and he declined to estimate how long work would take because the exact course of action for the job has not been decided.

Mike Darby, co-owner of the Irma Hotel in Cody, said he was worried the road could deteriorate further in the months before repairs begin, potentially making it impassable.

“It’s going to take some major work to get that done, and I’m afraid more erosion is going to get the whole road if they don’t do something quick,” Darby said. “I was led to believe that it would be fixed sooner, and that funds were available, so I’m really disappointed it hasn’t been repaired.”

Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk told a luncheon gathering of Cody business owners last month that “we have asked for emergency road funding to fix it and fix it right.”

“It’s our intention to get that road back up and running to two lanes as quickly as we can,” Wenk said, adding that repairs would probably be made in the spring, or “hopefully, this fall.”

Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday that Wenk contacted him shortly after last month’s luncheon meeting to clarify the timing of repairs.

Wenk had been misinformed when he first spoke, and said later that work would not start in the fall, Balyo said.

“I think Dan Wenk is a straight-shooter and he’s doing the best he can, and he certainly understands the importance of that road,” Balyo said.

Balyo said he was unaware of any complaints about the brief delay at the traffic lights on Nine Mile, and he had not heard of anyone changing travel plans based on the short section of single-lane road.

Besides the potential for more erosion in the spring, a summer repair schedule could also mean road closures or delays during the busiest part of next year’s tourist season, Balyo said.

Darby said the East Entrance road is a “lifeline” for Cody’s tourism sector, and that his lodging business dropped by nearly 50 percent in May when an avalanche briefly closed Sylvan Pass.

“It would be a great help to everyone if they could fix that road before they open the east gate next spring,” he said.

Hottle said melting snow and saturated ground make spring a poor time for road construction in Yellowstone.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected]

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