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Wyoming Road Failure Reveals a Housing Crisis

I live in Victor, Idaho-one of Jackson, Wyoming's, bedroom communities. Every day, roughly 3,400 Idaho residents drive over Teton Pass to work in Jackson. Only about 11,000 of us live on this side of the pass-2,000 in Victor-so commuters make up a significant portion of our population.

Commuters include nurses, teachers, police, waiters, cooks, motel housekeepers, construction workers, landscapers, fishing and mountain guides, and salespeople. All are Jackson Hole's economic lifeline.

On June 8, the highway over Teton Pass failed catastrophically, part of it collapsing into an impassable cliff of rubble. The failure made national news, and now you can spend hours on Facebook reading everyone's opinions about what should be done. Calls for building a tunnel through the mountain are resurfacing, although the tunnel that was previously proposed would not have bypassed the section of road that failed.

The Teton Pass highway is vital to Jackson's functioning as a tourist mecca. In good conditions, driving the 24 miles from Victor to Jackson over Teton Pass takes about 35 minutes. Now, a detour means that workers have to drive roughly 85 miles to get to their jobs, adding about two hours to the daily commute.

Jackson town councilor and economist Jonathan Schechter estimates the road closure is costing the local economy roughly $600,000 a day, and he says that's a conservative figure. Using IRS numbers for mileage reimbursement, the cost for drivers is $88 a day, while the mean hourly wage in Jackson is $40. Not only has the commute become nearly four times longer, but workers also have to put in an extra two hours to cover the cost of that drive time.

Jackson residents have responded to the crisis with compassion and financial aid. Homeowners have opened their houses in Jackson, and many are allowing people to pitch tents in their yards. Businesses are offering parking lot space for RVs. Teton County, Wyoming, eased its temporary shelter regulations, and the daily commuter bus altered its schedule and waived its fees until June 30 to accommodate riders. The Teton Valley Community Foundation set up a fund that accepts donations for affected workers. I am sure there are many other services and resources as well.

But camping in Jackson means you aren't going home after work. It means you may not see your children, partner or friends for days on end. It means you need to get someone to feed your dog or check in on your cat, horses, gardens or plants. It means you cannot enjoy the natural world-why most of us live here-because you're driving a car.

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with Teton Pass. There's an Instagram page called TetonPassholes, dedicated to showing people doing stupid things on the road. Most of the time it's video clips of truckers ignoring the winter trailer ban; sometimes it's pictures of people driving recklessly. We snarl and complain, but we still drive the road because it gets us where we need to go.

The average list price for a single-family home in Jackson reached $7.6 million at the end of 2022, according to the Jackson Hole Report. In the first months of 2024, 56 homes were on the market, with only three listed for less than $2 million.

In Victor, Idaho, the median price for homes was $537,000, an asking price that's not reasonable for most working people. Housing is in short supply in Victor, too.

For years, affordable housing has been a hot-button topic on both sides of the pass, as well as an hour south of Jackson in booming Star Valley. Now that the funnel that allows Jackson to prosper has been blocked, we can see more clearly than ever that our current model-housing the rich in one town, workers in another-is not sustainable.

Wyoming Department of Transportation has indicated that it hopes to open a temporary bypass around the landslide in as little as two weeks. A long-term solution will undoubtedly take months, if not years.

In the meantime, I hope our community leaders take this as a wake-up call and address the absolute need for workforce housing. A temporary patch will not address the crisis that this road failure has dramatized.

Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a writer in Idaho.

 

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