By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
A controversial bill that could have generated funds for Wyoming highways has died in a legislative committee.
Senate File 73, which would have created a revenue stream to maintain the heavily-traveled interstate which runs from east to west across Wyoming, had passed the Senate in a 16-13 vote before being presented to the House Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs committee.
The committee, last week, voted to table the bill, effectively ending its viability in this year’s legislative session.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation is facing a severe shortfall in funding, along with the rest of the state’s budgets. WYDOT Director Luke Reiner told Cowboy State Daily that their financing is not tied to the state’s general fund – so any revenue source carries significant weight.
“Our sources of revenue are primarily fuel tax, vehicle registration, and then the state does provide thankfully, an amount of federal mineral royalty severance taxes,” he said in an interview in March.
But those revenues don’t add up to enough to close a $354 million dollar funding gap – which could mean that future road projects and maintenance fall by the wayside, ultimately affecting the state’s economy.
“Everything we do in the state rides on our roads,” Reiner pointed out. “Everything we do goes from point A to point B, connecting communities, and improving the lives of our residents.”
The bill is designed, in its own language, to “provide for the financing, construction, operation, regulation and maintenance of interstate 80 under a tolled configuration.”
A study conducted more than 10 years ago showed that a typical section of I-80 in Wyoming had a traffic count of about 13,000 vehicles per day, with heavy trucks making up about half of that traffic. Traffic has continued to increase, with heavy truck volume alone projected to approach nearly 16,000 per day by 2037. And estimates showed then that maintaining I-80 in its present condition over the next 30 years would cost more than $6.4 billion – that’s after adjusting for inflation.
However, before the House Transportation committee even discussed the bill, a straw poll by the committee members halted the forward motion of the legislation. But the chair of the committee, Rep. Donald Burkhart Jr., R-Rawlins, encouraged Senator Cale Case (chair of the Senate Revenue Committee) to make his presentation to the members, despite their decision to table the bill.
“This is an important bill. It’s an important consideration,” Burkhart noted.
Senator Case pointed out that, like the majority of legislators in Wyoming, “I’m over in the senate voting for every cut that comes along,” and looking for ways to increase revenue. But he believes the toll bill could provide an important funding boost.
“Wyoming needs things set in motion,” he told the committee, “because from a revenue standpoint, we don’t have much to hang our hats on.”
And with the recent failure of the bill that would have increased the fuel tax, other funding sources such as the toll bill must be considered, according to Case.
“This tolling bill is a really significant tool that potentially can solve our problems with Interstate 80,” he said. “And free up a bunch of money to be distributed elsewhere in the state on our highway system.”
He encouraged the committee to “think big for a second, what it could accomplish.”
But the idea isn’t completely dead. At the end of the committee’s consideration on the topic, Chairman Burkhart noted that they will be looking hard at the idea in the interim.
“The bill is tabled, potentially pending a special session,” he announced, asking Senator Case to continue to work with the committee on this subject.
Case agreed, adding, “We truly are in a desperate situation in Wyoming – we need to be proactive.”