The wait for a pilot car escort may be frustrating for summer drivers on the Beartooth Highway between Cooke City and Silver Gate, but they should get used to such delays.
Reconstruction of the 4.3-mile stretch of the National Scenic Byway All-American Road (U.S. Highway 212) is on schedule, but the $15.2 million project won't be done until next fall.
"We're going to try to work as late into the year as we can," said Jason Hahn, project engineer.
Because Cooke City is the highest city in Montana, at 7,608 feet, the construction season can end early. Snow can fly any month of the year.
The Beartooth Highway connects Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park's northeast entrance by way of a scenic, 67-mile stretch of two-lane pavement, passing through Cooke City and Silver Gate along the way. The road is an economic lifeline for the towns, even though the park entrance counts fewer summer drivers than most of the park's other four entrances.
This summer has been no exception. In July, recreational visitation through the park's northeast entrance was down 3.3 percent to 50,779 visitors, compared with last year's 52,507. The lower visitation has been a trend all year long. So far this year, the northeast entrance has recorded 85,647 visitors through July, compared with 107,030 last year.
Why the gate's numbers are down 20 percent is uncertain. Is it high gas costs, the delayed opening of the Beartooth Pass and a cool early summer? It could be. But the park overall was down only 1.5 percent at the end of July compared with last year, and last year the park set a record for visitation.
Janet Burbach at the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce said she didn't think highway construction was to blame.
"I would say it's the economy, not the construction," she said. "Business has definitely declined this year."
Over the past few years, Cooke City and Silver Gate businesses and residents have suffered through more than their share of highway reconstruction and closures. This year was no different. In the spring, the road to the 10,947-foot high Beartooth Pass, south of Red Lodge, was closed twice after avalanches.
Over the past few years, sections of the road east of Cooke City have been torn down and built up to modern standards, causing more annoying traffic delays.
But in 2005, the towns suffered their worst construction nightmare. Highway 212 south of Red Lodge was closed for the entire summer after five mudslides tore out or damaged 13 sections of the highway where it climbs Beartooth Pass. Traffic was rerouted to Chief Joseph Pass in Wyoming, substantially slowing business in Cooke City, Silver Gate and Red Lodge.
This year, reconstruction work began in June. The work includes grading and application of road base, asphalt, concrete and pavement in addition to the installation of culverts and a water line. The work also includes the installation of an over-height-vehicle detection system to help protect the historic gate at the park's northeast entrance. Oftedal Construction of Miles City is the contractor.
The project is supposed to be completed by the end of September 2009.
"We'll pave in August or September" of 2009, Hahn said.
Until then, motorists traveling through the park's northeast entrance will encounter construction delays of up to 30 minutes between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., except on weekends and Labor Day. Motorcyclists should be cautious while traveling the rough gravel surface.
Because of the construction, truck traffic also is heavy between a quarry on the Lulu Pass road and the construction site.
For up-to-date information, travelers can call 888-285-4636.
Contact Brett French at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.