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Transportation

Wyoming Toll Road Bill Dies Again; Will Be Studied During Interim

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

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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.”

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“Big Brother” Concerns Over Traffic Cameras Nearly Doom Teton Pass Bill

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It’s been a yo-yo for Senate File 3.

Originally, the bill was intended to help law enforcement — through the use of traffic cameras — catch truckers who illegally use Teton Pass.

Then it was expanded to allow the use of traffic cameras or “automated vehicle identification systems” to catch speeders in construction zones across the state– something the Wyoming Department of Transportation favored.

But it was brought back to its original form on Monday out of concern that the expanded legislation would ultimately fail.

At issue, according to Sen. Stephen Pappas, R-Cheyennne, were unfounded concerns that the legislation would encroach on peoples’ privacy.

“It’s sad to me that for political reasons we’re going to sacrifice safety just because of … folks who, frankly, don’t understand the bill. They haven’t ready the bill probably,” Pappas said on the Senate Floor.

He said misinformation in emails sent to legislators presented concerns that all Wyoming license plates were going to be scanned for “Big Brother.”

“There are just so many emails that aren’t accurate,” he said. “And for us to cave into this, to me, it’s a travesty.

“Because the intent of the bill is to get people in construction zones to slow down,” he continued. “That’s all. We’re not going to put red light cameras anywhere to find people.”

Pappas’ disappointment was echoed by Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Landen who said he was also upset with the inaccurate emails.

“My frustration rests with really where we are in our culture today,” Landen said. “Because there’s a lot of misinformation, and frankly nefarious emails which were flying around on this bill.”

“I’m sorry about that because there was some good purpose for the bill, but I think this gets us back to where we can make that a safe mountain pass,” he added.

Ultimately the legislation passed on third reading by a vote of 19 – 11. It will now head to the House for a review by representatives.

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Wyoming Wind Pushes Amazon Semi, Other Vehicles Off Interstate

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming winds gusting more than 70 mph almost pushed an Amazon semi-trailer off of a bridge on Interstate 25 south of Chugwater on Monday.

The driver’s status was unknown as of Monday morning, as the Wyoming Department of Transportation noted on its social media that the Wyoming Highway Patrol was still investigating the incident.

The accident was one of several caused by strong winds, which forced the closure of Interstate 80 between Evanston and Laramie through most of Sunday and early Monday.

Central and southeastern Wyoming, from Cheyenne to Casper and west past Rawlins and nearly to Lander were under a high wind warning on Monday, with crosswinds of 60 to 80 mph possible until the late afternoon.

Interstate 25 southbound was closed near Wheatland after a semi-truck crashed and blocked lanes.

A wind warning was also in place for northwestern Wyoming, including Cody, while the area west of Dubois was under advisories for snow showers, slick roads and blowing snow.

U.S. Highway 30 between Granger and Laramie was also closed, as was U.S. Highway 287 between Rawlins and Laramie.

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Wyoming Department of Transportation: Stop Hitting the Snowplows

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Department of Transportation is reminding drivers to be aware of snowplows after seeing 10 collisions involving the plows over a five-day period.

The strikes, which occurred from Feb. 11 to Tuesday, brought the total number of snowplows hit by other vehicles to 17 so far this winter season, which runs from October to May.

Most of the plows were struck from behind, resulting in minor damages and injuries. However, one incident involved a tractor trailer hitting the rear of the plow, which totaled both vehicles and injured the WYDOT plow driver, the department said.

“Because of one careless driver, there is one less plow and plow driver on Wyoming’s roadways,” WYDOT District 4 in northeast Wyoming said on its Facebook page.

In most cases, the vehicles striking the plows had to be towed from the highway, the department said.

Some of the recent weekend snowplow strikes occurred near Elk Mountain and Rawlins on Interstate 80, Interstate 25 near Cheyenne, I-25 near Wheatland, Chugwater and Douglas, on Wyoming Highway 120 south of Cody and on Wyoming Highway 28 near Farson.

On Saturday morning, a WYDOT plow truck south of Cody on Wyoming Highway 120 was hit from behind as the plow driver was parked in a mailbox turnout near the Park County maintenance shop. A truck sander was destroyed but no injuries were reported.

“We want to remind the public to be careful when driving around our plows during winter weather,” said WYDOT Director K. Luke Reiner. “Our drivers are out there maintaining the roads by clearing the snow and putting down materials to help keep traffic moving. We want all drivers to pay attention and be careful so everyone gets home safely.”

The number of strikes has fluctuated over the past few years, with 23 crashes recorded in the 2019-2020 winter season, eight crashes in 2018-2019, eight in 2017-2018, three in 2016-2017, seven in 2015-2016 and 13 in 2014-2015.

To avoid collisions, WYDOT officials urge motorists to pay attention, put down the distractions and drive cautiously.

Motorists should stay a safe distance, around the length of four vehicles, behind a plow until it is safe to pass. WYDOT’s snowplows typically travel at speeds of 25 to 45 mph, depending on conditions.

Motorists should never drive into an area of the road where they can’t see what’s in front of them.

“If a motorist sees a cloud of snow ahead of them when they are driving, there’s a good chance it is a snowplow,” Reiner said. “Do not drive into that cloud. Motorists should stay back and wait to pass. If a motorists sees the plow and they need to pass, they should do so only if they absolutely need to.”

Motorists should never pass a snowplow on the right side of a two-lane road, because the vehicle could be using its wing plow, a plow that sticks out from the side of a truck, and a motorist may end up colliding with that part.

“If you can’t see to safely pass, a plow driver probably can’t see you either,” Reiner said. “We are urging the public to use caution and have patience. The snowplow will pull over to let you pass when they are able to and when it is safe for both the snowplow driver and the motorist.”

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Huge Wreck Involving Truck Carrying Wind Turbine Blade and Cattle Hauler Perplexes Residents

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Although a multi-vehicle accident in Sundance, Wyoming, on Wednesday involving a semi-truck hauling a giant wind turbine blade another semi-truck hauling cattle and a pilot vehicle looked pretty serious, no one was hurt.

The accident occurred near the Wyoming-South Dakota port of entry.

Photos and videos showed one overturned truck, a small fire, and what appeared to be a burnt wind turbine blade piercing through the side of the cattle truck.

“There were no serious injuries or livestock harmed,” The Wyoming Department of Transportation said. “The scene has been cleared and all on and off ramps are open.  Thank you for your patience today.”

Speculation as to how the wreck happened ran rampant on Facebook.

“My guess is that the cattle truck was coming down the road, maybe icy, hit the blade in the front and the blade lifted up over the cab and dropped back down between and the pickup was just in the wrong damn place at the wrong time when it came down,” one person opined.

Another individual appeared perplexed:

“The cattle truck ‘hit’ the blade bit I’m just trying to figure out how… I mean, how do you not see a big ass blade being hauled by TWO semis with flags and pilot cars?” he said.

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Semi Flips On Wyoming Interstate; Drivers Lose Their Minds

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A video posted to Facebook over the weekend shows why it’s important to heed the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s warnings about not driving during high wind warnings.

Steve LaFave, a Cheyenne resident, posted a video to his account on Sunday, after he and a friend drove behind multiple semi-trailers during a high wind warning this weekend.

The two appear to be driving south on Interstate 25, heading into Colorado.

During the two-minute and sometimes expletive-filled video, the men are following behind one particular truck that continues to try and resist the gale-force winds attempting to push it off the road.

Instead of taking the hint and pulling over, the driver continues to fight against nature, the battle finally culminating in the truck flipping over on the interstate. Another semi driving not far behind the fallen truck has to maneuver quickly to avoid hitting it.

“It’s like he’s oblivious too,” the guys say before the truck flips. “What a [expletive] idiot. I’m driving around this [expletive], I ain’t waiting around for this [expletive].”

The men do stop to check on the driver, but the video ends before there was any word from him.

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Interstate 80 Between Cheyenne and Rawlins Closed Due to Weather and Accidents

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Photo credit: Terry Butler

If it doesn’t seem that long ago that Interstate 80 was closed due to inclement weather, it’s because it hasn’t been that long ago. 

Last year, in fact, the state hit a record for the number of times I-80 was closed down due to Mother Nature. 

And she struck again today.

On Sunday afternoon, portions of the most-infamous part of Interstate 80 were closed due to winter-like weather and a series of accidents.

“10 semis and at least five cars and trucks are in a pileup wreck,” Terry Butler wrote on the Facebook page Wyoming Road and Weather Condition Updates. “There are at least 300 semis and vehicles behind them.”

Butler was referring to an accident that occurred east of Cheyenne near Burns.

Here’s the latest:

I-80 between Cheyenne and Rawlins (both directions are closed) and the estimated reopening time is 18-20 hours.

If you are stuck, hopefully you have fuel, warm clothes, boots, Internet access, food, something to drink, seats that fully recline, an iPad, and a Netflix account. 

Ideally, you would be driving in an RV.  That way, you could take a shower, cook a turkey, stretch out on the couch, and watch NFL Red Zone. RV is the way to go.

I-80 eastbound between Creston Junction and Rawlins due to rolling closure. No estimates on that reopening.

I-80 westbound between Pine Bluffs and Cheyenne due to crash. No estimates on reopening time.

US 30/287 between Bosler and Walcott Junction. This is a rough stretch of road weather-wise. If you are stuck here, hunker down. Your estimated reopening time 18-20 hours.

US 287 south of Laramie (estimated reopening time unknown).

The winter storm is impacting travel throughout the region, with strong winds and blowing snow making for very limited visibility.

No unnecessary travel on I-25 or mountain passes like WYO 70 through Battle Pass or WYO 130 through the Snowy Range.

If all of this is making you wonder why Interstate 80 was built where it was, check out this interesting article.

And you can check here for the latest road conditions.

For latest road conditions, go to wyoroad.info, download the 511 app or call 511.

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Wyoming “Off-Track” When It Comes To Road Safety, Mental Health

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming is off-track when it comes to roadway safety and mental health services, a recent National Safety Council summary concluded.

In the NSC’s state of the response executive summary, the organization analyzed how well the 50 states protected their citizens during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The report assessed state efforts in five key areas: employer guidelines, testing, contact tracing, mental health and substance use and roadway safety.

Wyoming was considered one of the 10 off-track states, which also included Florida, South Dakota, Montana, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Mississippi and South Dakota received the lowest overall rating.

Wyoming also was singled out as being off-track when it came to roadway safety (alongside Montana, both of the Dakotas and Massachusetts) and for addressing mental health issues (alongside other states such as South Dakota, Alabama, South Carolina and Kansas).

Only 12 states received an “on-track” rating, which included California, Oregon, Washington and Illinois. The other 29 states were considered “lagging.”

Although the pandemic has claimed more lives than accidental drug overdoses, motor vehicle collisions and falls combined, the state of response report uncovered “an inconsistent approach that has jeopardized safety due to the pandemic’s impact on issues such as addiction, traffic and workplace safety.

The NSC provided recommendations for states to improve their scores, such as ensuring access to medically-necessary treatments, including the availability of behavioral health services and substance use disorder treatment through telehealth and continuing focus on improving the safety of roads.

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UW Bus Facility To Get Upgrade With $4.2M Federal Grant

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Federal Transit Authority will award $4.2 million in transit infrastructure funding to improve the safety and reliability of Laramie’s bus systems and enhance mobility for transit riders, U.S. Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao announced Tuesday.

According to a news release, the Wyoming Department of Transportation, on behalf of the University of Wyoming, will receive $4.2 million to construct a new maintenance and storage facility in Laramie. The new facility will replace an obsolete one that is more than 70-years-old, improve maintenance activities and ensure a good state of repair among UW transit services vehicles.

“This administration is committed to rebuilding our nation’s transportation infrastructure even through the current COVID-19 crisis, and this $464 million in federal grants will help improve the safety and reliability of transit bus service nationwide as the economy returns,” said Chao in the release.

Demand for FTA’s grants for buses and bus facilities program far exceeded available funds, as FTA received 282 applications totaling approximately $1.8 billion in funding requests from 51 states and territories.

“Millions of Americans rely on public transportation to access healthcare, jobs, and other vital services,” said FTA Deputy Administrator K. Jane Williams in the release. “During this unprecedented time, we need to ensure access and mobility for the riders who depend on our nation’s bus systems.”

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Union Pacific Train Catches Fire Near Rock Springs

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A fire broke out near Rock Springs over the weekend when a Union Pacific train hauling flammable material derailed, according to railroad officials.

UP spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza detailed the events of the crash to Cowboy State Daily in an email.

Around 2:55 p.m. on Saturday, 39 cars of the train derailed, sparking a fire that involved nine cars.

The train was hauling 116 rail cars, which were carrying mixed freight including alcohol, which was involved in the fire. There were no injuries and the fire was finally extinguished late Sunday night.

“The cause of the derailment is under investigation,” Espinoza said. “Crews have moved the debris and damaged rail cars from the tracks, which will be hauled away sometime in the near future. Our engineering teams made the necessary repairs to reopen both main lines.”

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