Oct 23, 2013 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff WriterCommunity members celebrated a completed safer highway Tuesday with the ribbon-cutting ceremony on 17 Mile Road. The completion of the project also celebrated the partnerships that have developed since 1998, when it was recognized that improvements were critical because of a high fatality rate on the popular Wind River Indian Reservation highway.
"It's a unique project because of the collaborations," said Wyoming Department of Transportation chief engineer Delbert McOmie. "If we want something done in Wyoming, we got to bring everybody together."
Speakers for the ceremony at the Sand Creek Massacre Trail interpretive turnout included chief and district engineers with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, Central Federal Lands Highway Division engineer Ricardo Suarez, Fremont County Coroner Ed McAuslan, Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, Eastern Shoshone Tribe chairman Darwin St. Clair Jr. and Northern Arapaho Tribe chairman Darrell O'Neal Sr.
To fund the $8.23 million project, the tribes applied for a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant that financed the rebuild of road from the Little Wind River bridge to the Coolidge Canal. Roughly $2.15 million in funding for the 8.3 miles of reconstruction was provided by Fremont County, $85,000 came from Wyoming tourism funds and $430,000 came from the Indian Reservation Roads program. Both WyDOT and the tribes contributed about $9.2 million.
WyDOT district engineer Shelby Carlson said it cost about $1.8 million for every mile of construction. She added that about 305,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved and 44 tons of pavement were used.
"Highways are a way of life in Wyoming. ... We depend on them and we need them," she said.
The highway first was built in 1930 and received upgrades in 1950. But until then, contributing factors turned the road into a death trap for many people, causing rollovers, accidents and unsafe interactions with pedestrians and bicycles.
When the road recorded an average fatality rate twice that of the national average, renewed interest was paid to the highway's reconstruction.
"Pedestrian fatalities were higher here than any other reservations," McOmie said.
Eventually, a 2,000-per-day vehicle count necessitated changes in the road's alignment, curbs and flat slopes, he said.
"This is a road that has tragically taken the lives of our Native people," St. Clair said.
McAuslan noted that it has been 22 months since the last traffic-related fatality was recorded on 17 Mile Road.
"Back then, when you drove on 17 Mile Road, you were taking chances that somebody may die," he said. "It was the norm. ... It was an accepted part of living on the reservation."
He praised the changes that would now make commuting safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
The width of the highway was increased to 44 feet, which includes shoulder space and recovery zones.
An additional 49 cattle guards and new roadway lighting were put into place. Canal ditches too close to the road were removed and a new sanitary water line was connected into the Beaver Creek Housing division.
More than 15,000 flagging hours were recorded during the project, and the numerous job opportunities provided to more than 130 enrolled tribal members were recognized. The positions generated roughly $4.5 million into the reservation and surrounding communities. They reportedly earned more than $3.7 million in wages.
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