Let’s restore Teton Tunnel to our highway wish list

By Steve Duerr
Jackson Hole News & Guide

The local headline news of the past few weeks has been remarkably consistent.

“Hooverville West” was the cartoon theme characterizing camping in town as a housing solution. The editorial implored us to embrace the idea of a “public-private housing solution funded by all who live in and visit Jackson Hole.” The letters to the editor roiled with passionate comments on the housing crisis. The Guest Shot embraced “smart growth, not no growth” and opportunities for “our community to come up with creative solutions that provide public benefits.” The Corpus Callosum essay declared the “Harsh reality: There’s no housing fix.” Moreover, it stated, “For reasons both national and local, the goal of housing 65 percent of the workforce will become increasingly unattainable.” Another headline announced that on May 20 and 21 “Town, county to meet to discuss housing,” and continued “Public invited to come listen, but not to speak.” Really?

In this crisp crowded field, a sleeper headline read: “Tour 23 dreams about the future, Wyoming Business Alliance brings power brokers in county together to brainstorm.” It’s interesting that in the reporting, apparently only one of six groups put the focus on housing. Along with the reporter I happened to be in the room. Early on, I asked a breakout group how can we talk about economic development without setting up housing as issue No. 1. No traction.

When the session turned to a future wish list for things like infrastructure, I asked my group how about putting the Teton Tunnel up on the “Wish List.” A dedicated elected official replied that the Teton Tunnel was not right for the wish list because it didn’t make the cut in the comp plan visioning phase. What’s more the Teton Tunnel cuts against the comp plan’s 65 percent goal.

I asked, how’s it going with that goal? Answer: We have the Grove. OK, what will that cost and for how many housing units? Answer: Maybe $35 million for 68 units; rental rates will average around $1,200 a month. Really?

During the last comp plan battle, in the early 1990s, Jackson boiled over the same issues. Housing was in crisis. “Smart growth” was a mantra. A longtime town official shook his head, lamenting that downzoning the rural county means the town will have to “zone for ugly,” expanding vertically with high density. Right?

I believe a picture is worth a thousand words. The map shows four sketches. It was produced by a trusted county engineer in 2012 in response to a request by our ad hoc group of folks in both Teton valleys, Wyoming and Idaho, to sketch on one map every tunnel route anyone ever seriously suggested. Our group then asked the Wyoming Department of Transportation to again consider the Teton Tunnel. To WYDOT’s credit it dusted off its files and produced a six-page report in 2013.

Assumptions: only feasible route, 1.27 miles (black on map), 5,000 trips a day (annual average), cost $260 million, i.e., toll road rate of $22 a day (round trip).

Big numbers, extrapolated from the costs in 1973 of the I-70 Eisenhower Tunnel from Denver to Vail, applying a 3.5 percent inflation rate over 40 years. Conclusion: Given the costs and variables, further investigation of constructing the Teton Tunnel was not justified. Really? What if the estimates are half wrong? Then would a daily toll of about $10 make sense? What if a private-public collaboration allocated one-third of the cost to each the three stakeholders: WYDOT, the Idaho DOT and the private sector? The private sector’s third of $130 million would be less than the cost of two more Grove subsidized housing projects.
Isn’t it time to put the Teton Tunnel on the planning wish list?