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Funds To Drill 1.3 Mile Tunnel Through Teton Pass On Wish List For WYDOT

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

It’s kind of like making a list for Santa Claus at Christmas.

At least, that’s the way it sounds when Wyoming Department of Transportation Director Luke Reiner starts listing the large-scale projects that the state is pitching to be paid for with President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

“The guidance we received, in terms of this infrastructure bill, was ‘Don’t send us your maintenance projects – think outside the box, send us some bigger, more high dollar items that you would like to build if you had the opportunity,’” he said. 

It’s an exciting list, by anyone’s standards. Some of the more imaginative plans involve tunnels through Teton Pass and through the Wind River Canyon.

And maybe a rerouting of a particularly treacherous section of I-80 near Elk Mountain.

“What that does for the nation, is it provides the opportunity for that for I-80 to be open a lot more on any given year, because that’s the area we always closed,” Reiner explained. “So you reroute it along Highway 30.”

And that tunnel through Teton Pass? It’s not as outlandish as it may seem.

“There was actually a study that was done, I want to say it was in 2008, to look at the feasibility of that,” Reiner said. “I think there’s 1.3 miles, it starts halfway up the mountain, wherever that is, and it goes right through.”

And there are many benefits to such a tunnel, according to Reiner. 

“One, it avoids the avalanche-prone area, and that would help really make that road more passable,” he said, pointing out that in a part of the state where the cost of living is outlandish for workers, that stretch of highway plays an important role in the economy by getting workers to and from their jobs.

“It’s not lost on us that that has become a major commuter route for employees who work in Jackson and live in Idaho,” Reiner said. “The average daily traffic on that road is one of the highest in our state.”

Other projects on the “wish list” include:

I-80 electric vehicle charging stations;
Statewide airport Improvements;
Maintenance for the Beartooth Highway in northwest Wyoming;
Critical highway and bridge repairs for Interstate 80, along with additional truck climbing lanes and truck parking;
Wildlife connectivity and hazard mitigation projects, and
Increasing the capacity on Wyoming Highwy 22 outside of grand Teton National Park.

Reiner pointed out the big projects on the department’s “wish list” aren’t what the department would normally prioritize.

“You know, our focus in the state, based on budget, is maintaining the assets we currently have,” Reiner said.

He added the proposed infrastructure plan would not make money available for necessary maintenance projects that are currently backlogged because of the state’s current budget deficit.

But the “wish list” may actually be moot if the U.S. House and Senate can’t agree on the infrastructure bill itself.

“Remember, this bill has not passed through Congress,” Reiner said. “The Republicans have a counter-proposal for significantly less money. And we don’t know what the final outcome will be.”

So in the meantime, Reiner says that the department will continue to focus on what the state’s current needs are.

“Our focus remains on maintaining the assets we have with available resources,” he said.

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Wyoming Will Re-Open 9 Of 10 Closed Rest Stops

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily 

It appears truckers and travelers will find relief more often when traveling through Wyoming this summer with the reopening of state rest stops closed last year in the face of budget cuts.

Governor Mark Gordon on Thursday announced that nine of the 10 closed rest stops would re-open — at least temporarily — for the duration of the 2021 tourist season.

 The nine rest areas include:

  • Lusk on US 18
  • Guernsey on US 26
  • Greybull on US 16
  • Moorcroft on I-90
  • Star Valley on US 89
  • Sundance on I-25
  • Upton on US 16
  • Orin Jct on I-25
  • Chugwater on I-25

“With the summer season just around the corner, I’m glad we will be able to reopen these facilities to travelers,” Governor Gordon said. “We are glad to have this chance to find a temporary solution.”

According to a news release, the Wyoming Department of Transporation (WYDOT), the Wyoming Office of Tourism (WOT) along with the governor’s office will work together to secure a temporary federal funding source to allow the nine rest areas throughout the state to reopen. 

“WYDOT is extremely grateful to Governor Gordon and Director Shober for identifying new federal funds to temporarily reopen our rest areas for the tourist season,” said WYDOT Director K. Luke Reiner. 

The rest areas should reopen ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

Before Gordon’s announcement, there were some developments pointing to the reopening of the rest stops.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation late last month called for bids for janitorial maintenance at nine of the 10 closed rest stops.

In addition, companies that have previously provided janitorial services for the closed rest stops reported they were contacted about submitting bids for the work again.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation in June of last year closed 10 of its 37 rest stops because of budget cuts implemented by Gordon. The closures were expected to save the state $200,000.Rest stops were closed in Star Valley, Chugwater, Greybull, Lusk, Orin Junction, Sundance, Upton, Fort Steele, Moorcroft and Guernsey.

Many of the closed rest areas were along heavily trafficked, yet undeveloped areas and roadways, including state highways passing through Lusk, Guernsey, Moorcroft, Upton and Star Valley as well as smaller cities dotting the I-80 and I-90 corridors such as Chugwater, Sundance, Fort Steele and Orin Junction. 

The move inconvenienced many drivers who were then forced to travel long distances between cities without access to public restrooms or a place to safely stop for the night.

LaCynda Fortik, an independent contractor that provided janitorial services for the Chugwater rest stop, said she was contacted within the past week about providing services again when the rest stop reopens.

Fortik said she was told the state obtained money to reopen the rest stops.

The calls for bids issued by the Department of Transportation mentioned providing services for all of the closed rest stops except Fort Steele near Rawlins.

Fortik said she was happy to hear that the rest areas will again be open after watching travelers stop to take bathroom breaks at the closed Chugwater rest stop and dump their garbage regardless of the lack of facilities or the chain-link barriers cutting off entry. 

“They just dumped their garbage and used the restroom wherever they wanted or could,” she said. “It was pretty disgusting.”

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Chief Joseph Scenic Byway Gets Facelift

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming is the best state to visit for scenic vistas and wide open spaces. And the highways that let visitors take in those views provide some of the best sightseeing opportunities in the world.

But every once in a while, even the road to paradise needs some repairs.

And the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway northwest of Cody is nearing the end of an extensive repair effort.

About two years ago, a portion of the steep mountainside along the highway began sliding downhill and crews scrambled to make the road safe for travelers headed to either Red Lodge, Montana, or the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone.

It’s not been an easy task. 

Back in 2017, a portion of the hill on which switchbacks wind their way down to Sunlight Basin from Dead Indian Pass began sloughing, causing significant damage to the road also known as Wyoming Highway 296. A year later, that same area slipped, damaging the roadway further. 

In 2020, road crews were able to begin the reconstruction process, which will be finalized this month. That’s according to Cody Beers, public information specialist for the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

“There will be some short delays through May,” Beers explained. “As the road is being built, it will be paved; and then in June, it will be chip sealed. And after that it should be wide open for travelers.”

The road hasn’t been completely closed since the slide began – highway officials have been able to keep at least one lane of traffic open safely to facilitate travelers who come to see the unbeatable views from the 8,070-foot summit of Dead Indian Pass. 

And the stretch of road that is being repaired is just two-tenths of one mile — although the price to fix it ($5.8 million) belies its length. 

Although the roadway damage hasn’t posed a danger to motorists, the construction job has seen its share of tragedy. In October of 2018, a construction worker drove his huge haul truck off the edge of the cliff, resulting in his death. An investigation by the Wyoming Highway Patrol revealed that the driver had abused methamphetamines prior to getting behind the wheel.

By the end of June, Beers said the highway will be back to “normal” for the first time in more than four years.

“There won’t be any major delays,” Beers predicted. “But people will be stopped at traffic signals – there will be traffic signals on each end. But 5-minute delays at the most.”

And Beers pointed out that if drivers have to be stopped for traffic delays, the top of Dead Indian Pass is not a bad place to pause.

“We encourage people to enjoy the scenery,” he said.

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Volvo-Driving Couple Get Stuck On Park County Highway After Driving Around “Road Closed” Sign

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

In Wyoming, spring doesn’t necessarily mean the snow is gone.

A couple driving a Volvo trying to get to Cooke City, Montana, found this out the hard way last week when their vehicle became stuck in the snow on the wrong side of a “road closed” sign in Park County.

Park County Search and Rescue was called out just after 8 p.m. on Monday, April 26, to respond to a report of a stranded vehicle stuck in the snow on Highway 212, just barely on the Wyoming side of the Wyoming/Montana line northwest of Cody.

According to Search and Rescue Coordinator Bill Brown, the couple in the car, a 60 year-old-male and 59 year-old-female, had traveled past the road closure sign in their Volvo XC90 attempting to get to Cooke City from Cody.

The couple was lucky — cell phone service is spotty on the road to the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone, but they were able to get word out about their situation. 

Park County Search and Rescue, the Wyoming Highway Patrol, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Law Enforcement all responded to the scene.

Brown reminded travelers that traffic control signs are in place for a reason.

“Traffic control devices, even the temporary ones, are in place for safety purposes and should not be disregarded for any reason,” he commented, “especially a ‘road closed’ sign.” 

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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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