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Big job, big opportunity

Feb 3, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Wind River Indian Reservation tribal transportation official John Smith summed things up neatly last week when he contemplated his agency's task in accepting an unprecedented $8.2 million federal grant, plus a $5 million state grant, to rebuild a critical section of one of the most dangerous public roadways in Wyoming.

"We will be under the microscope," said Smith.

Darned right.

This is a big job in terms of money, construction and reputation, not to mention public safety. It has to be done now, and it has to be done correctly.

Tribal transportation won't be the only focal point of scrutiny. So will the Wyoming Department of Transportation, which is partnering with tribal transportation on the job. So will Fremont County, which heard construction details at a commission meeting last month. So will the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which still has some final review to do before approving the work from its end.

And so will the federal government, which isn't a popular entity in our state. It has created a half-billion-dollar fund directed toward transportation projects nationwide. For the first time, a major highway construction appropriation will be routed straight to the tribal entity rather than through a middle man at the state, federal or county level.

The government attaches lots of strings to stimulus money such as this, and there are countless stories across the country of persnickety feds looking over the shoulders of every local government, engineer and construction crew that gets one of the coveted grants.

Word is that the top man in transportation, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, plans to follow the 17 Mile Road rebuild personally.

Darned right.

No highway name is more notorious in Wyoming than 17 Mile Road, the site of more killer car wrecks and crippling collisions than just about any stretch of asphalt in the state.

For years local officials have claimed a big part of 17 Mile's wretched safety statistics is the shortcomings of the road itself. Yes, there have been excessive speeds, impaired drivers, even pedestrians walking at night down the center of the road, but a collection of respected experts decries the way it was built.

"The road lacks critical safety features which contribute to crashes and fatalities along the corridor."

Darned right again.

A good quantity of work already has been done on other parts of the route. This is the final long-awaited piece that is supposed to transform 17 Mile Road.

Here is our chance. There is no doubt the federal government has made it hard to get the money to do it and will make it hard to spend to as well. No less an authority than WyDOT chief engineer Delbert McComie, son of the current Fremont County state legislator and himself a 33-year veteran of the highway department, rates this job as the most complex minefield of process and regulation he's seen in Wyoming -- and he's seen it all.

None of that will matter if the project is carried out, if the myriad rules on reporting and accounting can be followed, if the numerous agencies that don't have much experience working together can find a way, if the assorted land access and water issues can be negotiated, and the tribal work crews tasked with the work do their jobs.

Important? Vitally. Easy? No way. But can it be done?

Darned right.

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Wind River Indian Reservation