By the time Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk got to the podium on Monday, he had already had an earful about possible road closures affecting the East Gate.
At a business meeting with the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce prior to a luncheon at the Cody Auditorium, Wenk was met with concerns about possible impacts from planned roadwork around Fishing Bridge.
“We’re concerned that the closings will adversely affect Cody business,” said Mark Westerling, president of the chamber.
In Wenk’s speech at the luncheon, he spent less than a minute talking about closures that may happen in 2018.
“It is our preferred alternative not to have closures until after Oct. 15 (of 2018),” said Wenk, who has been in charge of the park since 2011. “We want the closings as late as possible to have the least impact on area businesses.”
The proposed construction project — reconstructing Fishing Bridge and Pelican Creek Bridge as well as 3.2 miles of road — is open for public comment until May 26. It’s on the minds of Cody business owners and the members of the chamber of commerce more than any other issue.
Tina Hoebelheinrich, executive director of the chamber, hopes to turn congestion at the South and West entrances into a positive for communities near the East Entrance, near Cody.
“We have a tremendous opportunity here due to congestion at the other gates,” she said. “The East Gate is a great option to avoid the lines.”
But road closures could turn visitors away. And the closing of Fishing Bridge essentially closes the gateway to the rest of the park from the East Entrance.
Two options were mentioned as alternatives to costly closings.
Westerling tried to convince Wenk during the business meeting that using night closures as an option could solve some of the problem.
“Delays are part of construction and maintenance is needed. But long closures would be listed by sites that visitors use and would push them away from the East Entrance,” Westering said.
Wenk didn’t mention night closings as an option during his speech.
During a question and answer period, Wenk was asked about public transportation possibilities.
“We need to take baby steps,” Wenk said.
The use of buses or even a train was mentioned by an audience member.
“We get 50,000 visitors in the winter, but we get 50,000 visitors every two days in the summer,” Wenk said. “How much would it cost? How many buses would we need? What if someone gets stranded?”
Hoebelheinrich points to congestion and flat hiring as issues she’d like to see improved.
“There has been a 21 percent spike in visitors in the last three years, but staffing levels have remained the same,” she said. “But incidents are up even higher percentages. Crowding is causing conflicts between visitors due to traffic and parking problems.”
Construction projects are already underway to try to improve parking space and congestion, Wenk said.
The issue is complicated. Everyone wants to see the number of visitors increase, but nobody wants to see closures to improve on road widths, increased number of turnouts and improved bridges. And weather plays a huge part in construction.
“You can’t do it in the winter,” Hoebelheinrich said.
Wenk points to changing visitation trends as another complicating factor.
“April is the new May and October is the new September,” he said.