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Trucks, oil prices take heavy toll on state’s highway maintenance budget

in News/Transportation
Federal bill would help Wyoming’s highway maintenance
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Maintaining roads is costly business, but it’s made costlier by fluctuating oil prices and increased semi-truck traffic, a Wyoming Department of Transportation official said.

“The costliest factor in road maintenance is taking care of the surface over time,” WYDOT Director Luke Reiner said. “The biggest impact on a road surface is the vehicle traffic, specifically trucks.”

Related: Federal bill would help with highway maintenance

While estimates vary, Reiner said every source agrees semi-trucks are extremely hard on highways.

“In comparing the effect of a truck on a road to a car, I’ve heard a lot of numbers,” he explained. “The estimate range is anywhere from one truck equals 380 cars to one truck equals 4,000 cars.”

The difference between a semi-truck and a car is so stark, the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials doesn’t even include non-truck traffic in its road damage projections, Reiner added.

With about 6,800 miles, measured by individual lanes, to maintain in Wyoming, weather conditions also account for a significant portion of the agency’s maintenance budget.

WYDOT Chief Engineer Shelby Carlson said of the $80 million the agency spends annually on road maintenance, about $27.7 million is spent solely on snow removal.

“That includes labor, sand, salt, chemicals — all of it,” Carlson explained.

In addition to making travel difficult, weather does a number on the road surfaces.

“The toughest time for us with Interstate 80 is in the spring,” Carlson said. “The frost is coming out of the ground. We’re getting a lot of rain. The heavy trucks are still going over it all, and our subgrade starts to get soft.”

At about 400 linear miles long and accounting for about 1,600 lane miles, I-80 is nearly one-quarter of all WYDOT’s highway miles.

Added together and averaged out, WYDOT spends about $11,800 per lane mile in maintenance. But, Carlson said if you break out I-80 and average its maintenance by mile, the agency spends about $29,800 per lane mile on I-80 alone, or nearly 60 percent of the agency’s maintenance budget.In recent years, those costs have gone up — in part, due to higher volumes of truck traffic.

“When we look at I-80, nearly 70 percent of all traffic is trucks,” Reiner said.

In a report submitted to Legislature, WYDOT found semi-truck traffic on I-80 increased by more than 150 percent during the last three decades.

Truckers pay significant usage fees through higher registration fees, opting into the International Fuel Tax Agreement or paying outright at the ports of entry. But even as Wyoming’s Transportation, Highway and Military Affairs Joint Committee considers a funding task force and I-80 toll road, some legislators worry it will be too little, too late.

Sen. Stephan Pappas, R-Cheyenne, said legislators could also consider a fuel tax hike next spring, but there are no guarantees it would cover the rising costs of highway maintenance into the future.

Related: Fuel taxes pale in light of future electric travel.

While more wheels means more damage over time, WYDOT Assistant Chief Engineer Mark Gillett said oil prices also play a role in rising maintenance costs.

“Generally, asphalt cement, for lack of a better term, the tar sticky stuff, is a byproduct of refineries,” Gillett said. “Its price varies just like your gasoline (prices) varies. We have to deal with the ups and downs of the petrol market.”

In fact, the price fluctuates so often, he said WYDOT instituted a pay factor into its maintenance contracts, allowing contractors to bid jobs at the current cost of oil.

“If the cost of asphalt cement goes up by the time they purchase it and place it, we pay that difference,” Gillett explained.

Throughout the years, refineries have improved their processing methods, making for cleaner outputs as well as reducing the quality of their byproducts.

“Put simply, our asphalt isn’t as good as it used to be,” Gillett said.

A new surface laid by WYDOT in 2019 is expected to last about 20 years, but Carlson said if the agency can’t fund regular repairs, that life expectancy could be cut short.

“At about year 15, the road starts to degrade pretty quickly,” she said. “Then, you have about a two-year window to catch it before it dips down into really poor condition.”

No matter how much maintenance is poured into a road, however, it will still need to be rebuilt at some point.

“That’s what’s coming at us right now,” Carlson said. “We’re about $135 million short a year — that’s department wide, all operations — of that about $72 million is pavement. That’s just to keep the roads in their current condition. So, we’re falling behind.”

Zwonitzer: Time for Legislature to study gas tax increase

in News/Taxes/Transportation
2138

It is time for the state to study a possible increase in gasoline taxes, according to the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said the proposed 3-cent per gallon tax increase approved by the Revenue Committee in July should definitely be reviewed by the Legislature when it meets in 2020.

“The last actual tax that the Legislature has increased, the only tax in my 15 years, has been the gas tax,” he said. “And it’s probably time again.”

The 3-cent increase would boost Wyoming’s total tax on gasoline to 27 cents per gallon and raise an additional $20 million per year. Under the proposal forwarded to the Legislature by the Revenue Committee, $13.5 million of that would go to the state Department of Transportation to build and maintain roads, while $6.5 million would be split between city and county governments.

Zwonitzer said the increase, which would leave Wyoming’s total gas taxes among the lowest in the region, would help offset some of the Department of Transportation’s deferred maintenance costs.

“But with hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance needed, the 3 cents is really just kind of a chip in the bucket,” he said.

The state last increased gasoline taxes in 2014, adding 10 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline.

Cassie Craven, of the Wyoming Liberty Group, said she wondered what the money raised by the last increase had been used for.

“I’m wondering where that money went,” he said. “We heard back then we wouldn’t feel it at the pumps and gas prices don’t seem to indicate that. So where did the money go?”

The Wyoming Taxpayers Association, Wyoming Truckers Association and Petroleum Marketers Association have all said their members would support the increase as long as the extra tax is not tied to inflation.

The Wyoming Farm Bureau is on record as opposing the tax because of the expenses it would add to farming operations.

Five Questions with State Representative Landon Brown on Tolling Interstate 80

in News/Transportation
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Wyoming State Representative Landon Brown is opposed to turning Interstate 80 into a toll road.

Cowboy State Daily sat down with him recently and discussed why he doesn’t like the idea:

Brown:

The proposal in front of us right now is what I’m not in favor of.  The proposal has been tried by six or seven other states — which is where you can use existing infrastructure and you can use existing highways that the federal government has supported building. And you can use that as a tollway.

But you have to jump through hundreds of hoops and that doesn’t make sense to me because these other six or seven states that have tried this have spent millions and millions of dollars trying to appease the federal government to do this and not a single one of them have been able to do it. They’ve all dropped out and wasted millions of dollars.

To me, it seems like an incredible waste of money to go through the same process that other states have dumped millions of dollars into and I don’t want to see Wyoming do that.

There is an option to do a toll road on I-80 and make it a tolling lane but it would cost us a billion dollars to build a new lane in each direction and the state would have to foot that bill. The federal government won’t support that whatsoever.

In a time of economic downturn in our state where we’re not seeing coal, oil, and gas revenues, we’re certainly not going to see a billion dollars of revenue to build another lane. So tolling I-80, in my opinion, is not the way forward.

Cowboy State Daily:

The Wyoming Department of Transportation says we need another $40 million per year put into maintenance and upkeep of Interstate 80. Where do we get the money if we don’t toll?

Brown:  

I think WYDOT is in a sticky situation right now. I think we’ve got way more roads than what we have money for. I think if we look and pair it down to the I-80 corridor, I do believe — especially with the amount of truck traffic that we see on a daily basis going in and out of our state — I do believe that those figures are fairly accurate.

The problem I have with that is if you pair that money away from other projects across the state, those roads are going to be getting hit for just as bad. Those are the roads that Wyoming citizens are using on a daily basis — not people who are just traveling straight through.

WYDOT has done a really good job in the past 10 – 15 years making sure that I-80 is still good for all the truck traffic coming through here but we’re also maintaining our roads throughout the rest of the state as well.

I don’t know if we have an easy way forward. I think it is going to be growing pains for all of us. But truck traffic is not going to go down anytime soon.

Cowboy State Daily:

If we don’t toll, how do we target the vehicles that do the most damage to Interstate 80?

Brown:

That’s a really good question. That’s a tough question. When you look at the Wyoming Trucking Association and the impact fees that are associated with driving a truck through the state of Wyoming as opposed to our neighboring states, we are far higher on our truck traffic for oversized loads.  Any type of those loads and fees that we charge truckers when they hit the point of entry [are higher] than our surrounding states.

The argument has always been they do way more damage to the road than the standard passenger vehicle so why aren’t they paying their fair share? I don’t know necessarily feel that they aren’t quite paying their fair share but I do think there is a better way to do it. But it’s a silver bullet that no one has found yet.

To sit there and say that these people have to — the truckers especially because they are doing anywhere from 14,000 – 16,000 times the amount of damage than the standard passenger car does, that’s where the breakdown happens. We can’t charge a trucker 14,000 times the amount of fuel taxes that we charge a standard passenger car.

We have to look at this legitimately and understand that this is not going to be an easy process to work through and we’re not going to find a silver bullet that’s going to solve every single issue that we have on our roadways.

Cowboy State Daily:

Do we need another study?

Brown:

The study, to me, I think — when we sat down at the last committee meeting — it wasn’t a study of what we’ve already studied, it was more of a where can we look at tolling as an option and what other options do we have? What are the other things we can look at for fixing our roadways?

Senator Pappas brought up the idea of doing a singular toll right in the center of the state as opposed to multiple stations. Well, that’s one option. But what about the people who go up and down I-25, there is a lot of traffic there. Should we look at charging on those as well. Should we look at charging other places?

There are quite a few other options that could look at beyond just tolling I-80 that would help bring revenue in. That’s where the study and task force — it was actually more of a task force to bring interested parties to the table. The Wyoming Trucking Association and the Contractors Association — all of these people who have a benefit with the use of I-80. Bring them to the table and see if there is another way to do this besides strictly tolling the trucks that are coming through the State of Wyoming.

Cowboy State Daily:

Could you be open to tolling?

Brown:  

I don’t think that I really am. It’s a tough question. If it came out that this study and the task force recommends and that’s the best way forward, I would need to consider it. As it stands right now, no I am not open to tolling because I don’t feel that it is the adequate way to do it.

We would spend millions of dollars on this project to get it up and running and we wouldn’t see anything until 2028. We’re talking 10 years down the road before we even see the potential of this getting approved. How much time and money are we going to waste in getting it there?

I can tell you how much we can just ask the other 6 or 7 states that have processed this. My opinion is we don’t need to go down this road. We’ve already seen these other states put millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours spent and it is not worth it in my opinion.

Cowboy State Daily:

Is it realistic to say that better budgeting is the answer?

Brown:

I think budgeting better is a good portion of it. But it goes back to what I said earlier, I think one of the things that we have to look at is what roads do we want to keep in the best shape possible?

Do we want to keep the roads that Wyoming citizens are using on a daily basis or the ones that we have people coming in and out of the state transferring their goods and services from one coast to the other. Do we want to keep that one as high as possible?

We do have to look at revenue enhancements. There is going to have to be some sort of — if we want to keep it as the status quo. WYDOT is telling us we are $100 million short of what we need for all of our roadways across the state. $100 million is not going to appear especially when we see coal declining over the next 10 – 20 years. And we see oil and gas being as volatile as well.

We’re going to have to figure out how to fix this and right now the federal government is looking at bringing in some additional help with our infrastructure. But when we start looking at the federal government bringing this in, we can’t count on that all the time. And it has taken us 20 years to see this infrastructure bill come to fruition.

Five questions on toll roads with Wyoming Senator Michael Von Flatern

in News/Transportation
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State Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, is one of a number of supporters of a proposal to make Interstate 80 a toll road.

The senator expanded on his position during a recent question-and-answer session with Cowboy State Daily. 

Below is a transcript of the conversation:

Von Flatern: 

Eighty-five percent of the traffic neither stops nor originates at all in the State of Wyoming. Eighty-five percent of the traffic just passes through.


We have 410 (miles) of the toughest road in all of America to take care of and we can’t do it with our low population of 580,000 people. So if we can take that money that we spend on that highway — which is about $60 million a year that we spend on maintenance and operations on that highway — if we move that over to other roads, we can take the toll money …

We’ll take that millions of dollars and put it on there and we’ll take care of I-80 and we’ll improve I-80. We’ll get the third and fourth climbing lanes on certain hills. We’ll put in more snow fence. We’ll make this a safer, more sound road. Easier to drive, easier on the truck drivers. 

We spend $60 million now and we need an additional $40 million just to keep it in the current condition. In 10 or 15 years if we don’t toll, we will lose the current condition of the road and it will deteriorate even further and there are holes in some of those bridges you can see right now.

Cowboy State Daily:

Who pays for the toll and can Wyoming residents be exempt?

Von Flatern:

The federal government owns that road. I-80 is an Interstate project. I would tell WYDOT to find a way to exempt Wyoming residents. The only way they’ve come up with so far is every time a Wyoming registered vehicle drives through the cameras, we’ll ding the federal mineral royalties (FMRs).

We’ll ding the FMRs. They get about $60 million, $64 million to be exact every year in FMRs. So we would be paying the tolls. Although we would be paying the tolls from a different bank account.

Cowboy State Daily:

If Wyoming residents wouldn’t pay the toll, why is there opposition?

Von Flatern:

That I cannot figure. There is a constitutional issue which some have brought up. There is nothing in the constitution that says anything about letting the state toll a road. It says I can’t privately give it to you to run this toll across this ferry or run this toll on this bridge. I can’t give it to you and I can’t give it to a county. But the state can do a general bill which says we’ll do the most economical way of tolling a highway and what does that lead to?


And then we’d do a study real quick on the back of a napkin and say I-80 because it has 12,000-some vehicles per day passing any one point. They would look at that and look at I-90 and it doesn’t have enough vehicles. I-25, not enough vehicles to even pay for the tolling system. I-80 will pay for itself and it would take a back of a napkin to figure that out.

Cowboy State Daily:

If we don’t enact a toll, where will we get the money to keep our roads fixed and safe?

Von Flatern:

That will be tough. Right now, we are missing $40 million just to keep the I-80 corridor in its present condition. Highway 59, which is 110 miles you just drove yourself up from Douglas to Gillette, the oilfield is really starting to hammer that road and I don’t think they have any money other than to put another overlay on or occasionally dig an area up and work over the base.

We’re losing ground on our roads. We’re not improving them at all. Unless we toll and take I-80 out of the picture. Remember it is going to have $50 million above what it needs to operate. That’s at the lower end — 10 cents a mile toll. You’ll have $50 million dollars to replace those bridges over at Wamsutter. That’s $50 million to do lots of things on I-80 that they can’t do today because they don’t have any additional money.

Cowboy State Daily:

Why don’t we just cut spending and budget better with existing revenues?

Von Flatern:

We’re about 2008 budget (levels) now. So 10 years ago budget. They’ll talk about the expansion of the budget from 1999 to 2008 or 2009. That was catch-up time. 


We needed to implement and we had federal mandates that said we had to spend this money. We had to implement a lot of things that we were ignoring in the 90s because we didn’t have the money.

So we are clear down to 2008 budget today. And 10 years later we’re back spending the same amount of money.

We’ve skinnied down this budget to a point where our state is not going to be able to manage to cut anymore without cutting services completely and turning these roads into dirt roads.

Cowboy State Daily:

How confident are you that your legislation will pass?

Von Flatern: 

I have some opposition. There are some people who don’t understand the fact that Wyoming registered vehicles won’t pay the tolls. The (Wyoming) Trucking Association is carrying the water for the national group which doesn’t want any existing roads to be tolled because it is a tax for them. We understand that. They are non-resident and they should be paying.

We have heard that up to 12,000 cars do the damage of one loaded truck. I have heard that it is as high as 14,000. But 12,000 is the number we use today. 12,000 cars for every truck. That means they would have to pay 12,000 times what a car pays to drive across this state.

A truck does pay a couple hundred dollars more to cross the state because they have to report 410 miles. But that’s not 12,000 times what they should have paid because they do the damage to the roads. So the trucking association and I think the truck stops on I-80 are a little excited about this. But I don’t think they will see any diversion especially if we keep the tolls low enough.

We have 410 (miles) of the toughest road in all of America to take care of and we can’t do it with our low population of 580,000 people. So if we can take that money that we spend on that highway — which is about $60 million a year that we spend on maintenance and operations on that highway — if we move that over to other roads, we can take the toll money … We’ll take that millions of dollars and put it on there and we’ll take care of I-80 and we’ll improve I-80. We’ll get the third and fourth climbing lanes on certain hills. We’ll put in more snow fence. We’ll make this a safer, more sound road. Easier to drive, easier on the truck drivers. 

We spend $60 million now and we need an additional $40 million just to keep it in the current condition. In 10 or 15 years if we don’t toll, we will lose the current condition of the road and it will deteriorate even further and there are holes in some of those bridges you can see right now.

Fuel taxes pale in light of future electric travel

in News/Transportation
Gas Tax
2137

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Fuel taxes alone can’t keep pace with the cost of highway maintenance in a future with electric vehicles and fuel-efficient engines, Sen. Stephan Pappas, R-Cheyenne, said. 

“The problem with the current fuel tax is it’s not sustainable,” Pappas said. “We’re changing our habits in the U.S. We’ve got new urban models, telecommuting, people are staying home, and many people don’t even own cars.”

While most of these challenges are hitting metropolitan areas the heaviest, Pappas said Wyoming can’t rely on rural insulation forever. 

“We may be working more remotely in the future than we currently do,” he explained. “Also, there’s a growing number of hybrid vehicles, and a number of purely electric vehicles as well.”

Fuel taxes could be in the spotlight during the 2020 Legislative Session as legislators scramble to close the growing funding gap in Wyoming Department of Transportation’s road maintenance budget.

A member of the Wyoming Legislature’s Transportation, Highway and Military Affairs Joint Committee, Pappas recently voted against an Interstate 80 toll road proposal, because he said he’s not sure a toll road could close the gap by itself.

“There’s a bunch of ways to skin a cat,” he said. “I don’t think there is a singular option that can fix the state’s highway situation. I think the answer will be multi-faceted.”

To that end, Pappas is drafting a bill to create a task force which will look at several revenue options for highway construction and maintenance. The bill draft is slated for presentation to his committee in October.  

Tax at the rack

Describing the state’s fuel tax as complex is somewhat of an understatement, said Wayne Hassinger, the WYDOT Fuel Tax Administration program manager. 

“There are no straight lines when it comes to fuel tax,” Hassinger explained. “When we hire a new employee, they go through 12-18 months of training to administer the fuel tax.”

Wyoming charges distributors, suppliers and importers fuel tax at the rack, the physical location fuel exits the terminal or refinery.

“A terminal is a location where multiple suppliers store their fuel,” said Kim Peters, the WYDOT Fuel Tax Program supervisor.

From the rack, fuel is loaded into semi-trucks and rail cars before being shipping to locations such as gas stations and bulk storage facilities.

“We impose the tax when it crosses the rack, but it’s a tax on the ultimate user,” Hassinger explained. “When you buy gas, you pay the tax, but it’s already been paid up the line. So somebody in that line is getting reimbursed when you pay it at the pump.”

In 2013, Wyoming raised both the gas and diesel tax from 14 cents to 24 cents a gallon, Hassinger said. Prior to that, the state had not raised the fuel tax since the late ’90s, he added.

While all gas and diesel is taxed at the rack, the point at which the end user refunds the supplier determines how the money is distributed throughout the state.

When the suppliers submit their tax returns, they identify where the taxed fuel was destined.

“There’s a (tax) distribution model for gas and a different distribution model for diesel,” Hassinger said.

If the fuel is gas and destined for a city, the city will get 15 percent of the tax collected. For diesel, cities’ collect 5 percent of tax collected within city limits.

If the fuel is sold outside city limits, the county receives a portion of the tax collected. Counties receive about 13 percent of taxes collected on gas and 20 percent of diesel taxes.

The remaining tax collected is earmarked for several accounts, with the primary being WYDOT’s highway fund, which is used for highway construction and maintenance, Hassinger explained. WYDOT can only spend fuel tax monies on road construction and maintenance, but he said counties and cities are permitted to use the revenue as they see fit.

The highway fund receives about 57 percent of tax collected for gas sales and 75 percent of diesel tax.

During fiscal year 2018, Wyoming collected about $83.3 million for gas taxes and about $84.5 million for diesel taxes. In late calendar year 2018, WYDOT reported to the Legislature about $135 million in unfunded operating expenses, including more than $72 million in construction and maintenance.

User fees

As the future of travel evolves, Pappas said the state’s methods of funding infrastructure need to keep pace. 

“America is really falling in love with the electric vehicle,” he said. “Experts predict 55 percent of all new car sales in the U.S. will electric by 2040.”

Hassinger said Wyoming was in the first wave of states to charge electric vehicles a use tax, which recently increased from $50 to $200 annually. But Pappas said the increase wouldn’t close the funding gap.

“If we were California, (electric vehicle user fees) might work out, but we’re not California,” he said.

The fee only applies to electric vehicles registered in Wyoming, so the state captures no additional revenue from electric vehicles registered in other states and traveling on Wyoming highways.

“You could charge Wyoming (electric vehicle) users thousands and thousands — it’s not going cover the cost of maintaining the roads,” Pappas explained.

The federal government also taxes fuel, but Hassinger said it hasn’t raised taxes in 30 years and Wyoming receives the lowest federal reimbursement allowable. 

“Fuel taxes are a user fee — when you pay fuel tax, you’re paying to use the road,” Hassinger said. “Every state is struggling with this: How to fund rising infrastructure costs with diminishing revenues. The national consensus is it’s likely going to be a mix of all sorts of things.”

Tolling I-80 could prevent potholes, but proposed bill has rough road ahead

in News/Transportation
Tolling I-80 could prevent potholes, but proposed bill has rough road ahead
2015

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A toll proposed for Interstate 80 traffic could help the Wyoming Department of Transportation reduce the $41.5 million yearly funding deficit for maintaining the corridor, but not everyone is on board.

The Legislature’s Joint Transportation, Highway and Military Affairs Committee reviewed the idea of tolling I-80 during its meeting in August.

“We have up to 19,000 vehicles driving I-80 in a 24-hour period, counting both ways, mostly between Green River and Rock Springs,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette. “We’re spending approximately $60 million a year on that highway.”

A 2018 Wyoming Department of Transportation study reported the department spent about $182 million on construction and maintenance for the I-80 corridor from 2016 to 2018. In order to simply maintain the highway’s current condition, WYDOT would need an additional $41.5 million annually. I-80 accounted for 62 percent of all Wyoming’s heavy truck traffic and about 20 percent of the state’s passenger vehicle traffic, the study found.

“The total funding to WYDOT from all sources has declined,” said Keith Fulton, the assistant chief engineer for WYDOT’s Engineering and Planning Division. “We’re seeing higher construction, labor and materials costs — if funding doesn’t change with those, you’re losing the strength to address those needs.”

While the details of a toll road have yet to be ironed out, Von Flatern said Wyoming residents wouldn’t pay a fee to drive I-80 under the plan examined by the committee.

“It won’t toll Wyoming-registered vehicles — it will only toll out-of-state vehicles,” he explained. “But, you can’t discriminate who you toll.”

Rather than charge vehicles registered in Wyoming, Von Flatern said the state would reimburse their owners for the toll cost, possibly with oil royalty income.

Opposition

For Sheila Foertsch, executive director of the Wyoming Trucking Association, charging only non-resident vehicles presents a problem.

“We have concerns about the current bill, because of the refund,” Foertsch said. “You must treat all trucking the same.”

In the past, the association did not oppose tolling studies proposed by Legislature or increases to registration fees and fuel tax, she said. 

“We understand there is a need,” Foertsch said. “But the State of Wyoming already receives registration fees and fuel tax. We currently have the sixth-highest registration fees in the nation. These trucks are not just traveling through scot free.”

Furthermore, she said the association thinks a toll could significantly impact local economies along the corridor.

“Truckers will often avoid a toll road at all costs,” Foertsch explained.

 Von Flatern said the tolling initiative received committee support, but only just. 

“We’re a little worried about getting two-thirds vote,” he explained. “It only passed the transportation committee 7-6.”

During budget sessions of the Legislature, such as the 2020 session, any measure not related to the state’s budget must receive a two-thirds majority vote to even be considered.

Sen. Stephan Pappas, R-Cheyenne, said he voted against the initiative, but wasn’t entirely opposed to a toll road.

“Eight years ago, it was looked at and the sentiment of the committee was, ‘We studied enough, let’s go ahead with it,’” Pappas said. “And, I’m not good with that.”

WYDOT needs the money, he said, but there are other funding avenues that could be explored.

“I’m not against the idea of tolls, but I think there are other and better ways of collecting funds that are more user friendly and easier to administer,” Pappas said. “We should look at increasing fuel tax, vehicle registration, weight fees, license fees and weight distance taxes. Everything should be on the table.”

Pappas said he is drafting a bill for the 2020 session to create a task force to look at all possibilities of revenue generation for the I-80 corridor. 

“I do understand this will be a study first, but frankly, I’m not ready to the spend the money on the study,” Pappas said. “I’d rather spend money on a task force to determine whether tolling is the best road to go down.”

Small request, big ask

Typically, when a state creates a toll on a road, it is required to pay back all the federal funding it received for that road, but Von Flatern said that wouldn’t be the case here.

The Federal Highway Administration is conducting a pilot program that could allow Wyoming to create a toll road without paying back any money, he explained. The Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program allows a state to collect tolls in order to reconstruct or rehabilitate an interstate corridor that could not otherwise be adequately maintained or functionally improved without the collection of tolls, according to the committee’s issue brief.

Up to three facilities could participate in the program, and each must be located in a different state.

“All we’re asking for now is to put our name in with the federal tolling programs,” Von Flatern said.

If approved, the process could take a decade or more to produce an actual toll road. Von Flatern said the earliest guesses put the toll road creation somewhere around 2029 if no hiccups are encountered.

This isn’t the first time Von Flatern put forth a tolling initiative. In 2010, Senate File 35 proposed granting the Wyoming Transportation Commission authority to create a tolling program. While the bill cleared the Senate, it was killed by the House Transportation Committee.

“It can keep coming back,” Von Flatern said. “We have to do something, because WYDOT is losing the battle in taking care of all our roads.”

If WYDOT does not receive additional funding for I-80 maintenance and improvement, Fulton said the highway could begin to deteriorate.

“We may have to pull more money from other places or live with a little less condition than it is now,” he explained. “We’ll always make sure the road is safe, but we might be able to plow it a little less, and it will degrade over time.”

A salute to aviation at Wyoming’s only Spaceport

in Tourism/Transportation/Travel
Wyoming Spaceport celebration
Three boys check out the interior of one of the planes that flew to the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport during the 2018 Spaceport Days festival. (Photo courtesy of the City of Green River)
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A celebration of air travel at a Wyoming airport named with an eye to the future is in the cards this weekend.

Green River’s annual Spaceport Days, staged at the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport, will be held Friday and Saturday and will feature a magic performance, outdoor screening of a “Star Wars” movie and a demonstration of the Aviat “Husky” airplane, made in Afton.

The Intergalactic Spaceport is a public use airstrip about five miles south of Green River that was renamed a spaceport in 1994.

According to published reports, the rural airport was renamed by Green River City Council members to convey “an offer of sanctuary to the possible residents of the planet of Jupiter” threatened at the time by pieces of a comet headed for the planet.

The airport is used by local pilots and pilots of small planes, said Amanda Cavaz, Green River’s communications administrator.

“We have people who come in and land, then they come in to explore,” she said. “We’ve had some people who land there to make sure everything is OK on their aircraft. It’s a great airport for anybody who is coming in to do recreation here in Green River.”

Green River Spaceport Days
Crowds check out the helicopters and airplanes on display at the 2018 Spaceport Days at the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport. (Photo courtesy of the City of Green River)

Spaceport Days was organized as a way to celebrate aviation and local aviators, Cavaz said.

“And it’s to invite aviators from our region to come in and see our operation and share a breakfast,” she said.

Activities begin at 7 p.m. Friday with a performance by a magician, followed at 9 p.m. by the showing of a “Star Wars” movie and Star Wars costume contest.

Fire pits can be found throughout the area, allowing attendees to light campfires while watching the movie.

Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport
A young attendee at the 2018 Spaceport Days festival takes a look around the inside of a helicopter during the event held at the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport. (Photo courtesy of the City of Green River)

“It’s really a fun, family-friendly type event,” Cavaz said. “People bring trucks and camp chairs and set up their camp chairs and watch a movie outdoors.”

On Saturday, a pancake breakfast will start the day at 8 a.m. The cost is $7 per person, but pilots who fly into the area will eat for free, Cavaz said.

“Most pilots like to fly early in colder air, so they land, taxi off the runway, park the aircraft and have breakfast on us,” she said. “Members of the public then have a chance to come in and look at all the different types of planes.”

In past years, pilots have flown to Green River from areas of Wyoming including Laramie, Afton and Pinedale, she said.

After breakfast, a UH-60 “Blackhawk” helicopter and an “Airmed” rescue helicopter will be on display, while the “Husky” airplane created by Afton’s Aviat will put on an aerobatics demonstration.

For more information on Spaceport Days, visit there website here or go to the Spaceport Days and Fly-In page on Facebook.

What’s your take? Cowboy State Daily readers respond to traffic fatality story

in Bill Sniffin/Column/Transportation
Wyoming road fatalities
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By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

My column about the increased danger on Wyoming roads this year generated some interesting responses from people around the state.

In that column it was pointed out that fatalities on Wyoming highway by Aug. 1 titled 92 compared to just 57 a year ago (in the intervening 10 days that number has climbed to 98). Why has it spiked so much?  My column (published on Cowboy State Daily) laid out some examples and possible reasons. Here is a collection of comments from some other folks around the state:

Vince Tomassi, Kemmerer-Diamondville:

“If the speed limit is 70, I get passed regularly by people going I would estimate 80-plus.Same for the 80 MPH sections (of Interstate 80), people are going 90. I agree with your friend about distracted drivers with cell phones, texting and driving.”

Jean Haugen, Lander:

“I have never seen the fatalities so bad, even back when my dad was a Patrolman.  A lot of the time, fatalities around here are either lack of wearing a seatbelt or falling asleep at the wheel and crashing. Wyoming used to have the reputation of having the best highways in the U.S.   It is very concerning.  It was certainly sad about those two ladies being killed that were from Riverton.”

Susan Gore, Cheyenne:

“Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak cites striking Colorado statistics, re: THC marijuana increasing traffic fatalities. THC alters time-distance perception even after the high is gone.  That is a difference from alcohol. His tragic Wyoming example is a high school senior with great life prospects going home after a graduation party.  Brian was there.”

Tucker Fagan, Cheyenne:

“I agree with Steve Peck’s editorial about information screens in cars (that was reprinted in the column). The Air Force uses displays on the wind screen to keep the pilot’s eyes outside the cockpit. Saw this several years ago on vehicles I rented but the technology has not achieved widespread use. Also since Alexa, etc. can do so many things, voice activation should be incorporated in vehicles.”

 Geoff O’Gara, Lander:

“A couple of thoughts about the rising death tolls on the roads. I think we all agree that drivers are often distracted by social media devices, even when they are specifically to aid drivers, like route mapping. Quite a few years ago I was driving back from work at PBS in Riverton and a driver swerved out of the busy opposite lane and right across my path – she went off the opposite shoulder, lucky for me she didn’t try to recover or it would have been a head-on. From the way her head bobbed up, I’m quite sure she was looking down at a screen, or else asleep.”

Here are two other elements to consider, and I’m guessing there are studies out there that I’m too lazy to look for:

1. “The ridiculously big and growing vehicles that so many people drive these days, in our comfort-seeking over-indulgence – for tourists, sometimes rental RVs much bigger than what you normally drive at home. As a bicyclist, watching them weave around, I’m terrified.

2. “The aging American population, and the enormous number of retired oldsters with the wealth to wander around the highways. The driver in the Grand Teton crash was 65. The victims were even older. I’m in my 60s now and my reflexes aren’t all they used to be. Cognitively, older folks process more slowly, and may focus less intently. “It’s dangerous out there! Take the train! (Bring passenger trains back to Wyoming!)”

John Davis, Worland

“I think the usual reason for variation in highway deaths is simple statistical variation.  That is, when you have a large number of random events, there will always be a substantial variation of incidents, simply from the nature of the randomness of chances.  Sometimes you can trace the fact, of, say, extra highway deaths, to specific causes, but not usually.”

Phil White, Laramie:

“It is good you are calling attention to the carnage on the highways.  I’m hearing more and more often from various people, especially about the Front Range madness, that the roads are simply no longer capable of handling the traffic.  They cannot be upgraded fast enough to maintain even a minimal level of safety for a population growing so fast.

“I’m sure you are right about the distractions inside cars.  More important than motorhomes, I would think, is the explosion in the past 15 years of semis on Interstate 80.  Every time I do a casual count I find that semis account for about half of the vehicles on Interstate 80 and there have been a lot of wrecks involving semis.  One of them coming out of Telephone Canyon and onto the flats south of Laramie several years ago plowed into a vehicle stopped in a line of cars because of a previous accident between grand avenue exit and 3rd street exit.  Four members of one family were all wiped out in that one.  Even big heavy SUVs and pickups are no match for semis.  At 80 mph they have no chance to avoid collisions and their mass magnifies the damages.

“As to alcohol, I’ve been trying for years to get (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) and other parties to push the Legislature to prohibit drive-up liquor store windows.  I believe I read that Wyoming is the only state that still allows drive-up windows.  It’s an easy way for liquor dealers to avoid the responsibility to not sell alcohol to someone who, if made to walk inside, would display obvious impairment.  (Of course the Legislature and the Supreme Court also have refused for years to create “dramshop law” liability for liquor dealers who sell to obviously impaired adults.  As the law now stands, a liquor store owner cannot be held responsible for a drunk driver killing another motorist, even if the liquor dealer sells liquor to and then helps the buyer get into his car because he can barely even walk).

“As to speed, I am always amazed when the Legislature raises the speed limit.  Even before the recent increases it was already well established that at night going 70 mph it is almost impossible for a vehicle to stop in time after an object becomes visible in the headlights.  When they raise the limit they are simply saying ‘We are willing to sacrifice a few hundred lives or a thousand lives over time to save everybody else a few minutes in getting to their destination.’

“I often think of John Muir’s observation after touring Yellowstone in the late 1800s from his Our National Parks (1917): ‘The regular trips–from three to five days–are too short.  Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day.  The multitude of mixed, novel impressions rapidly piled on one another make only a dreamy, bewildering, swirling blur, most of which is unremembered.’”

Larry Wolfe, Cheyenne:

“I just rode my bike on 365 miles of the State’s road (a bit of that in MT). Those of us on bikes are scared to death of distracted drivers there were many stories of close calls. Good for you for bringing attention to this.”

Big Boy back in Cheyenne after Midwest tour

in News/Transportation
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The largest steam locomotive ever built is back in its home of Wyoming after a cross-country trip that took it through six states.

“Big Boy,” the refurbished steam engine returned to the rails by Union Pacific in May, was greeted by crowds of train enthusiasts in Pine Bluffs on Thursday as it returned to Wyoming after a trip that took it through Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The locomotive, the only one of its kind to travel the rails since the model was retired in 1961, left Wyoming on July 8 for the tour dubbed the “Great Race Across the Midwest.”

Crowds who met the train as it pulled into Pine Bluffs marveled at its size.

“If you look at a baseball field, home plate to first base is 90 feet,” said Joe Partoll of Castle Rock, Colorado. “(The Big Boy) is another 42 feet past that. It’s a pretty incredible size engine.”

The very size of the locomotive — which weighs in at more than 600 tons — had many doubting the Big Boy could be restored, said Ed Dickens, manager of Union Pacific’s Heritage Operations.

“There was a groundswell of pessimism as we announced the project,” he said. “When you look at the locomotive right here and look at how big it is, it’s just a massive machine. So I can understand a little bit of pessimism that ‘Hey, that’s just too big…’ Well, here we are right now in downtown Pine Bluffs and we’ve got this awesome Big Boy.”

Some 25 of the Big Boys were built in the 1940s to pull heavy loads up steep grades between Utah and Wyoming. Only eight remain intact and the one in Cheyenne, referred to as “No. 4014,” is the only one running.

The history attached to the huge locomotive was responsible for drawing some members of the crowd to Pine Bluffs.

“It’s part of America,” said Rob Davis of San Francisco. “America would not be what it is today without the trains.”

Federal bill would help Wyoming’s highway maintenance

in News/Transportation
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Proposed federal legislation could bring millions of federal dollars to Wyoming to help the state maintain its highways.

The Fixing American Surface Transportation Act — called the FAST Act — is a $287 billion highway transportation package that just cleared a U.S. Senate committee by a vote of 21-0. The bill calls for a 27 percent increase in funding for the nation’s highways over the next five years.

Wyoming now receives about $285 million in federal money per year to maintain its highways. The FAST Act would increase that funding by 2 percent in the bill’s first year and by 1 percent each year for the following four.

Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said the extra cash would be a benefit for Wyoming, given shortfalls it sees now in highway funds.

“We’re about $135 million short in unfunded needs per year …” he said. “So certainly the 2 percent, 1 percent you talk about would add $15 million or $20 million. That would certainly go toward our focus on maintaining our infrastructure.

The act would also streamline some regulations the department must now comply with, Reiner said, such as required traffic congestion studies.

“It’s in the federal rule that says we need to count the cars … somewhere between Casper and Cody at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning,” he said. “We don’t think that’s a good use of our time. We do not have a congestion issue like other states and communities.”

Wyoming already pays three times the national average per person to maintain its roads, Reiner said, due in part to its low population and also to the amount of traffic on interstate highways coming from other states.

“It’s a national road and we certainly pay to maintain it,” he said. “The federal money we get goes directly to that.”

Wyoming’s Legislature this year approved a 3 cent boost in gasoline taxes that is expected to raise about $13 million a year for highway work.

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