Although Fishing Bridge itself was rehabilitated last year, the road beyond the iconic structure, the section leading up to it and a new bridge being built at Pelican Creek, will continue to produce delays for Yellowstone National Park visitors from the East Entrance for some time.
The new bridge is slated to cost $22-million-plus and was added to the project in fall of 2018.
Most debate initially surrounding the multi-year project fixated on an early fall seasonal closing in 2018 and what the economic impact might be on Park County.
Originally, it was not known if the Pelican Creek portion of the work would be funded by the time Fishing Bridge work began. The Federal Highway Administration is funding and overseeing the project, according to the Park Service.
This year, 4 miles of Park road has been churned to mud and gravel, traffic lights installed with threats of 30-minute delays, and construction cranes of the size and type that might more commonly be seen on big-city docks or raising big-city skyscrapers tower over trees.
It is possible to be stopped by flag men more than once over this stretch of road.
However, Cody Country Chamber of Commerce executive director Tina Hoebelheinrich said the Park Service pledge is not to have a delay exceed a total of 30 minutes on one pass-through.
Traffic has been diminished to one lane of movement at a time and pilot cars lead visitor vehicles through all the trimmings of mud, dirt and gravel.
Cody officials blame a decline in automobile traffic through the East Entrance into Yellowstone in May and June mostly on weather and a decline in hotel lodging taxes on the closure of Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel for renovation, not specifically on the traffic issues near Fishing Bridge.
Hoebelheinrich said her office has heard only a little tourist feedback about the patience needed to drive through the East Entrance.
But she does not discount the issue and the Northeast Entrance, through Cooke City, Mont., is seeing a boost in vehicle traffic.
“The thing I think it may be impacting is GPS’ sending people that way,” Hoebelheinrich said. “We have heard people complain about it being muddy down at the east gate.”
East gate vehicular traffic for May of 2018 was 19,343 and in May a year later it was 16,814. The June numbers were 33,041 last year and 31,170 this year.
Northeast Entrance numbers were 7,409 in May of 2018 and 8,129 in 2019. For June the statistics read 19,343 last year and 20,019 this year.
“I think they’re still coming into Cody,” said Park County Travel Council marketing director Claudia Wade, “but they’re coming in through the Northeast Gate.”
When a Fishing Bridge revamping was in its early planning stages in 2017, there was a proposal the East Gate would close to through Park traffic in early September.
Cody merchants protested and the compromise was a mid-October closure instead of early November last year.
The new bridge is classified as part of the Park’s Fishing Bridge to Indian Pond project and is officially called the Pelican Creek Viaduct because it spans the Pelican Creek estuary.
Yellowstone has had an earthen causeway in that location since 1902. The current concrete bridge, slightly less than 200 feet long, was erected in 1934.
The work, according to the Park Service, will feature a replacement 1,500-foot bridge next to the causeway.
By the end of the 2020 Yellowstone work season the causeway is scheduled to be eliminated with wetlands of the Pelican Creek Drainage reconnected to their natural flow.
Hoebelheinrich said Cody and Park County are actually fortunate the Fishing Bridge and Pelican Creek Bridge projects are being completed simultaneously or the work would have dragged and interfered with drivers longer.
“At the minimum we saved ourselves a year,” she said.