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June 07, 2012 8:53 am

Beartooth Highway study under way

Written by CJ Baker

Travelers along the Beartooth Highway this summer may be asked to pause their trip and answer a few questions about their travels on the road.

Traffic is being flagged down at the ends of the Wyoming-Montana highway some days this summer for a brief survey. The aim of the study, being spearheaded by the Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road, is to put a figure on the highway’s worth to the region.

Not only will the research put a hard number on the amount of traffic on the Beartooth Highway, it also will provide estimates of how many highway travelers are from out of the area, how long they’re staying and how much money they’re spending in Cody, Cooke City and Red Lodge.

A description of the study says the data can be used as a tool to help get highway funding, shape marketing in gateway communities and give businesses ideas for development.

At a presentation to Park County Commissioners last month, the Beartooth friends group’s project coordinator, Kim Capron, suggested one possible use of the data would be to include it in a pitch to the Wyoming Department of Transportation to take over maintenance of the portion of the highway that lies in Wyoming.

“The future of that highway, in my opinion, depends on the Wyoming Department of Transportation stepping up and taking responsibility for that highway,” Capron said.

While the Montana portion is maintained by our northern neighbor, WyDOT has not expressed any interest in maintaining the Wyoming portion. Neither the federal government nor the states claim ownership of the route, and there is no designated funding for it — which is why the Beartooth is often referred to as an “orphaned highway.”

“I think it’s clear why,” said Capron. “It’s a huge financial burden.”

However, she predicted the study will show the highway also is a contributor to the area’s economy.

“I think we’re going to find out that that highway is valuable,” Capron said.

Infrared highway traffic counters will be placed at the highway’s entrances to gather the hard numbers.

For the more detailed data, survey-toting researchers with the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research are being deployed to flag down and quiz travelers. There are three points where traffic is being flagged: near the junction of the Beartooth Highway and the Chief Joseph Highway towards Cody, just inside Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance and at the Vista Point pullout near Red Lodge.

Odds are that travelers won’t be surveyed: the crew does four days of surveying every two weeks, Capron said.

If the travelers are locals from Park County, Wyo., Park County, Mont., or Carbon County, Mont., they’re asked how many times they travel the highway in the summer and winter and where they got on the All-American Road. If they’re from out of the area, they’re asked how many people are in their group and how many nights they’re spending in Cody, Cooke City or Red Lodge. The out-of-area folks also will be given a more detailed questionnaire to fill out later and mail back.

Capron said vehicles won’t be stopped very long.

Researchers hope to speak with 100 people each day.

The surveying began May 31 and will wrap up in October.

Winter surveying also is planned if enough money is raised, said Capron. Currently, the Friends group has raised about $77,000 of the roughly $150,000 estimated total cost.

“If nothing else, what we have right now is enough to complete the summer month survey,” Capron said.

The Park County Travel Council committed $10,000 for the work, and the Park County Commission has been asked to consider a $10,000 contribution, too. The commission will consider it soon while putting together the county’s 2012-13 budget.

Even if the winter surveying happens, those hoping to make a case for or against plowing the entire Chief Joseph Highway for year-round access to Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance shouldn’t get their hopes up: this study will not offer data on the potential effects of plowing the road now used for snowmobiling.

“That is not the goal of the study,” said Capron. She said the Friends group is neutral on the issue and not researching it.

2 comments

  • Comment Link June 11, 2012 9:33 pm posted by evon

    that is my favorite vacation site seeing road .
    my son made a special trip when he was up in montana to show his best friend the view .WE live in central kansas

  • Comment Link June 13, 2012 10:33 am posted by Lois S

    The entire Beartooth Highway is the highlight of my trips to Wyoming! I have only missed it once in the thirty years I have traveled there. Love it!!

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