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July 07, 2011 9:34 am

EDITORIAL: WYDOT commended for herculean efforts

Written by Ilene Olson

This seems to be the year of the uphill battle of the downhill slide for the Wyoming Department of Transportation. This spring, more than 30 mudslides undermined Wyoming’s highway infrastructure, often resulting in closed highways or partially blocked routes.

There are few places in Wyoming where that has been more evident than here in the Big Horn Basin, where a mud and rock slide closed U.S. 14-A over the Big Horn Mountains from Lovell to Sheridan in April, followed by a mudslide on June 13 that tore away a large chunk of U.S. 14 between Greybull and Burgess Junction, closing that highway as well.

The mudslide on U.S. 14 occurred only three days after 14-A opened for the season following mudslide repairs by EHC of Deaver. We’re thankful the two highway closures didn’t overlap; if they had, travel over the Big Horns from the northern Big Horn Basin would have been impossible, and travelers would have had to reroute through Ten Sleep or Billings instead.

WYDOT officials responded to both slides with appropriate speed and resources. The Wyoming Transportation Commission awarded emergency contracts in a timely manner while also dealing with other mudslides, snow removal and flooding challenges statewide.

The contractors selected for both jobs were chosen in part because they were able to mobilize immediately to clear and repair the highways as fast as possible, and they followed through on that commitment.

Particularly impressive was the detour constructed on U.S. 14 east of Shell, completed just 18 days after the slide that dropped a large portion of the highway by 30 feet, and only eight days after the commission awarded the detour bid to Wilson Brothers Construction of Cowley.

As WYDOT district spokesman Cody Beers said, “We didn’t move heaven, but we moved a whole lot of earth.”

Each repair allowed traffic to return to the affected highway as quickly as possible. That is especially important when one considers the economic impact of blocking tourist and business travel to Big Horn Basin communities, and the disruption it causes for commercial truckers who deliver goods to our area and beyond.

Of course, both repair jobs were expensive. The cost to clear and repair U.S. 14-A near Lovell exceeded $150,000; detour construction on U.S. 14 near Shell cost more than $200,000.

But the cost goes beyond money spent today. Beers and other WYDOT officials have warned that money spent on this year’s mudslides — and on flood mitigation and repair — means less money available for highway repair and construction projects down the road.

That’s a disappointing development, especially since the department already was struggling to keep up with escalating needs for repairs, maintenance and upgrades to the state’s highway system.

With that in mind, Gov. Matt Mead has said he will seek federal funding to help replace money spent on emergency highway repairs. We hope that effort is successful.

In the meantime, we applaud the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s successful efforts to assure that highway travel resumes as quickly as possible after serious disruptions to the highway system.

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