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County wants 'continuing meetings' with tribes

May 7, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Travis Becker, chairman of the Fremont County Commission, said Tuesday that he'd like to plan future meetings with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, saying their first summit in April went "very very well."

Nearly all members of the county board and the business councils of both tribes were present in a rare assembly for a congenial discussion the maintenance of county roads on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Before his Dec. 31 death, former tribal transportation director John Smith had suggested the tribes maintain all the county's roads on the reservation. Such a move could bring in an influx of federal dollars.

Commissioner Clarence Thomas, whose district represents most of the reservation, coordinated the meeting and said such an arrangement could ultimately benefit the county's pocketbook amid the decline of tax revenue during Wyoming's economic downturn.

Responsibility for maintenance could be transferred either by a county commission resolution or a private petition, according to Fremont County Attorney Pat LeBrun. The process would also require surveys, public notices, hearings, opportunities for the public to object, appraisals and compensation.

Talk about a potential transfer of maintenance was limited Monday. Instead, discussion largely focused on the deteriorating conditions of county-maintained roads on the reservation.

The discussions also revealed that, in some cases, neither party was sure who was responsible for maintenance of certain roads.

"I think we can see that there are some gray areas out there," Becker said.

Clint Wagon, chairman of the Shoshone Business Council, said he was particularly concerned about the current maintenance of roads near Fort Washakie, including Trout Creek, South Fork and North Fork roads.

"It seems to me that those roads are pretty hazardous when it comes to snow removal," he said.

The condition of North Fork Road is especially "inadequate," he said.

"There's cracking and sinking all the way up the road," he said.

Dave Pendleton, who heads the county roads department, agreed those roads need work. He said they're on the list of projects identified for funding by the 1 percent optional sales tax.

In his budget proposal to the county board last week, Pendleton said the North Fork and South Fork roads "are nearing the end of their useful pavement life but may be extended with preventative maintenance treatments."

"Applying full thickness asphalt overlays to these roadways is not feasible at this time as there are no shoulders and this work would further narrow their driving surfaces," he said, noting that money for the projects will likely be pulled from the Road Construction Fund, which is supplied by the state's gas tax.

SBC council member Leslie Shakespeare said he thinks the narrow roads need to be analyzed to determine whether they're "engineered to the current safety standards of the day."

Shakespeare said he was concerned that, if the tribes took control of North Fork, South Fork and Trout Creek, they would be required to bring the roads up to modern standards.

Pendleton said a re-engineering would certainly be useful, but that process requires him to conduct a survey and then plug the data "into a computer which can show where your deficiencies are."

"We don't have plans to do that," he said. "We don't have the resources to do that -- to do a full rebuild."

Pendleton said that an asphalt overlay currently costs $500,000 per mile, and a full rebuild costs $1.3 million per mile.

If the county used every penny from the 1 percent fund on road reconstruction, he said, it could only complete three miles each year.

The three roads west of Fort Washakie alone contain roughly 15 miles of roadway, and Pendleton said there are no current plans to widen the shoulders.

The tribes also expressed concern about Cooper Road, which all parties agreed currently isn't safe, especially since the 2015 opening of the Wind River Job Corps on Airport Road has increased traffic.

Pendleton, along with the city of Riverton and the Wyoming Department of Transportation, is planning a study to figure out how to rework that intersection.

NABC chairman Roy Brown said it felt like roads on the reservation were "afterthoughts" in the county's planning for how to use 1 percent funds. He said he wants more collaboration to improve safety.Specifically, he's concerned about Ethete Road, which houses the headquarters of the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

Pendleton agreed that the road's sharp curves present "a lot of issues."

"It needs to be reconstructed, but we just don't have the funds to do it," he said.

When a 1 percent committee of citizens was formed in 2012, Becker said there was hope it would include two members from each county district, including the reservation. However, Becker said interest has waned over time, and the committee now has fewer members.

Wagon expressed concern about the lack of road and address signage on the reservation, which has sometimes led to delayed arrivals by ambulances in times of emergency.

County planner Steve Baumann said that the county does not replace street signs unless it's at the intersection of two county roads.

Road signs can be purchased from Baumann's office for $40; address numbers cost $3.

SBC vice chairman Vernon Hill said he's bothered by fencing issues that sometimes allow livestock to freely traverse county roads.

"A lot of the time, fences go down, and nobody fixes them," Hill said.

Pendleton said that private landowners are responsible for fencing, but his crews will typically replace fences if they're doing adjacent roadwork.

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