Decades after the tribes of the Wind River Indian Reservation first dreamed of straightening and repaving one of the most dangerous roads in Wyoming, officials from the state, federal, county and tribal governments celebrated the grand opening of 17 Mile Road last week [in October of 2013].
The road, which is part of the most direct route between Ethete and Riverton, is dotted with small crosses to mark many lives lost, especially on a once treacherous series of curves some six miles east of Blue Sky Highway.
“This was one of the most dangerous places in the county, if not the state,” said Fremont County Sherriff Skip Hornecker, who lives on the reservation. Hornecker gestures at the old road, once gravel, now paved, that snakes behind the metal building housing the Northern Arapaho tribe’s commodities program.
“At one point, you drove on those big S curves,” Hornecker said. The road, which old timers say is about 80 years old, has been straightened at least once and was first paved in 1957. Now its freshly blacktopped surface is gently banked through the curves at angles designed to hold vehicles on the road.
“It’s going to be a major safety improvement for everyone who travels on this road,” said Mike Hejtmanek, superintendent of the St. Stephens schools. “We, meaning the school districts on the reservation, we transport 1,000 students to school and back on buses every day. This will help keep them safe.”
The work was completed under an $8.2-million TIGER grant from the federal government awarded in 2011. The TIGER grant program is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, otherwise known as President Barack Obama’s stimulus program.
“It depended on the cost-benefit ratio for the project,” said John Smith, the director of transportation on the reservation, about qualifying for the grant. “Safety was a big part of it. How many wrecks were on the road? What was the average cost of the wrecks?” Smith said that a car wreck on 17 Mile Road cost an average of $74,000 when the grant application was submitted.
The grant was also written to enable contractors to employ Native workers from the reservation. “The Project employed over 130 tribal workers,” said Shelby Carlson, a WYDOT engineer based in Basin who worked on the project. “Those tribal members jointly earned over $4.5 million in wages.” The project lasted six years and cost a total of $17.6 million, according to Carlson.
In the process of widening almost ten miles of road from 22 to 40 feet the workers also replaced nearly two miles of drainage pipes and 3.4 miles of irrigation pipeline, a boon to farmers and ranchers on the overburdened irrigation system. The workers put up 28 miles of new right-of-way fences and installed 49 cattle guards along the new road, Carlson said.
But for all of its improvements, the new 17 Mile Road is only as safe as the drivers who use it. The speed limit will be 55 miles per hour, as on most secondary roads on the reservation, said Smith.
Even so, the new road, like many others on the reservation, may become a magnet for people who want to drive fast. If speeders from off the reservation are attracted to its freshly paved miles of straightaways, the tribes may have yet another reason to push for anew state law to allow Bureau of Indian Affairs police to ticket non-Native speeders and drunk drivers on the reservation.
In the meantime, even leaders who cannot always enforce the law are able to make a joke about speed limits.
“It’s time somebody told the truth about this,” said Scotty Ratliff, a former state legislator, a member of the state Board of Education and a special assistant to Sen. Mike Enzi for tribal affairs. “It’s a great revenue generator for the state. They build a great highway and then say drive slow. I’ve gotten four tickets.”
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile and blogs for WyoFile’s Native Notes; in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org. WyoFile is a nonprofit news service focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.