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I-80

Longest (And Worst) Stretch Of Interstate In U.S. Turns 50

in John Waggener/Column
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By John Waggener, guest columnist

The vital and strategically important coast-to-coast Interstate 80 carries thousands and thousands of cars and trucks across the nation daily. Sometimes that traffic comes to a chilling halt in Wyoming.

A particular stretch between Rawlins and Laramie is so notorious it took on the title Snow Chi Minh Trail. That stretch opened 50 years ago this month and was the last major section of Wyoming’s portion of I-80 to be completed.

The only remaining portion of I-80 yet to be completed was a short section east of Cheyenne that opened on May 4, 1977.

When I-80 opened between Laramie and Walcott Junction, it was a big deal. This 77-mile stretch of highway was the longest section of Interstate to open at one time in the nation.

There is a simple reason why it is the longest stretch of Interstate to open. It was routed a considerable distance from the existing parallel U.S. 30 that passes well to the north of I-80.

There was no way to route traffic from the old two-lane U.S. 30 to newly completed sections of Interstate.

In 1956, the Federal Bureau of Public Roads was planning the location of I-80 and determined it could save 19 miles between Laramie and Walcott Junction by routing the highway on a more direct route through Arlington and Elk Mountain.

The Wyoming Highway Commission learned of the plan and responded in opposition to the plan. Locals informed officials that it would be a bad idea to locate a road near Arlington because of the problem of blowing and drifting snow.

The highway commissioners also wanted to protect the economies of the U.S. 30 towns of Rock River, Medicine Bow, and Hanna, that would be bypassed by the new highway.

Then began the multi-year debate between the state and the federal government that eventually landed on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1959, where a bill sponsored by Wyoming’s senators Joseph O ’Mahoney and Gale McGee to allow states to make routing decisions was debated.

The Bureau of Public Roads argued that the majority of highway users would prefer a shorter route through Wyoming if one were available. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 stipulates that the highways should be as direct as possible to meet the needs of the nation.

The Wyoming Highway Department conducted a series of traveler interviews over the course of a year and determined that nearly 90% of motorists traveling between Rawlins and Laramie preferred the option of a more direct route, and they indicated they had no plans to stop in any of the U.S. 30 towns.

Wyoming’s case to locate I-80 along U.S. 30 quickly faded.

When the topic of hazardous weather was discussed, the Feds responded that modern snow removal equipment would be able to maintain the new highway.

The state gave in, and construction on the 77-mile section of highway began in the summer of 1966. The route was so controversial Federal Highway Director Frank Turner had a big map of the area on the wall of his Washington office.

It took four years to complete the nation’s longest section of Interstate to open at one time. To celebrate this momentous occasion, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the Arlington exit on the morning of Saturday, October 3, 1970.

With more than 400 people in attendance, including federal highway officials, Governor Stan Hathaway and Wyoming State Highway Commissioner Gus Fleischli cut the ribbon officially opening the road.

It was a pleasant autumn morning, but four days later, a storm wreaked havoc on travelers. It turned out that it was going to take a lot more than “modern snow removal equipment” to keep I-80 open and safe.

This October 7, 1970, closure was the first of many. The Wyoming Highway Department’s (WYDOT) conventional wintertime maintenance program and its standard snow fence design were no match for the new highway.

The Laramie-Walcott section forced WYDOT to find new and innovative ways to help keep I-80 safe and open. I-80 west of Laramie became the world’s foremost testing ground for wintertime road maintenance techniques.

The highway department developed an all-new snow fence design that became an industry standard and was the first to implement the use of road closure gates on a major U.S. highway.

WYDOT implemented the variable message sign and the variable speed limit program on this section of I-80. Though the efforts by WYDOT have led to a safer road, I-80 still can be treacherous. After all, this is no ordinary highway. It is legendary.

Book Info –  In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the completion of the Laramie-Walcott section of I-80, the Wyoming State Historical has published a special 50th Anniversary Edition of the Snow Chi Minh Trail: The History of Interstate 80 between Laramie and Walcott Junction.  

Written by John Waggener, an archivist at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center, this special Golden Anniversary expanded edition includes many updates, new interviews, additional critically important historical information, additional maps, and photographs made available to the author after the release of the first edition in 2017.

Even if you have the earlier edition of the book, this book will be a great compliment to your copy. Copies of the book are available at select bookstores across the state, or you can contact the Wyoming State Historical Society. Email linda@wyshs.org to request copies. The author can be contacted at waggener@uwyo.edu

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Interstate 80 Closed a Record Amount of Times This Year (And We’ve Got 2 Months To Go)

in News/Transportation
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Advances in technology are helping improve the quality of information the Wyoming Department of Transportation uses to decide on road closures, but the final decision is still in the hands of people actually on the roads, the department’s director said.

“We only close the roads for two reasons: visibility and crashes,” said Luke Reiner, WYDOT director and a retired U.S. Army Major General. “There is no road closure decision made at headquarters. Those decisions are made by the boots on the ground.”

The number of times WYDOT closes Interstates 80, 90 and 25 varies each winter season, which is measured from October-May, but the 2019-2020 season is already breaking five-year records, according to information provided by WYDOT.

So far, I-80 was closed 55 times since October, WYDOT reported. The previous high for I-80 was 54 closures during the 2015-2016 winter season, and the five-year low was 34 closures during the 2017-2018 season. 

Both I-90 and I-25 experienced similar arcs. 

I-90 was closed nine times this season, with its previous five-year high set at eight closures during the 2018-2019 and 2016-2017 seasons. 

With 18 closures on I-25 so far this season, it’s on a path to break its five-year high of 19 closures in both the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons, WYDOT reported.

“According to our meteorologists, our storms started earlier this year than in previous years,” Reiner said. “This year, we have had snowfall in December, January and February, which is really not typical for us.” 

In the last decade, WYDOT has adapted its approach to closing roads by using an in-house meteorologist, weather-prediction technology, road sensors and new closure philosophies. 

But Reiner said the most important component in a closure decision remains the troopers and highway maintenance crews operating on Wyoming’s roads.

“The job at WYDOT is to keep these roads as absolutely safe as we can,” he said. “We execute that role through the men and women working in the field and making these (closure) calls.”

Weighing the impacts

Every hour I-80 is closed, the private trucking industry loses about about $1 million, Reiner said. 

“Our goal is not to close roads,” he said. “Over 50 percent of the traffic on I-80 is heavy trucks, and 90 percent of those are passing through. When we close the roads, we inhibit the flow of those commodities.”

The Wyoming Trucking Association did not respond to several requests for comment. 

Reiner said every road closure negatively affects the flow of commercial goods, which ripples through the state’s economy.

“Additionally, closures have a negative effect on transportation to schools and work,” he added. 

Because closures impact so many areas of Wyoming life, Highway Patrol Col. Kebin Haller said troopers and WYDOT staff avoid making closure decisions in a vacuum.

“We have veteran troopers out there who have worked that stretch of road for many years,” Haller explained. “And we also have rookies. Recognizing the significance of these decisions, our troopers talk to WYDOT maintenance staff, the dispatch center and the traffic management center before making the call.”

Additionally, the troopers run the decision by their first-line supervisor, he said.

“We also have the benefit of experience and can review the benefits of closing the road in the past and benefits of decisions not to close the road,” Haller said. “We do not take these decisions lightly.”

As part of the information used in making the closure decision, WYDOT Operations Chief Mark Gillett said the department collects road temperature data via environmental sensors, or Road Weather Information Systems (RWIS). 

Depending on the type of sensors at a site, RWIS can provide information regarding air, surface and subsurface temperature, relative humidity, average wind speed, wind gust and wind direction, visibility, and surface conditions, WYDOT reported.

WYDOT uses 94 RWIS stations statewide.

“We do use technology to help us determine when best to close a road,” Gillett said. “But, ultimately, we do not close the road because of those technologies. Those decisions are made by folks in the storm.” 

Eyes on the road

Wind direction and unsafe driving habits play some of the most significant roles in winter accidents and the road closures that follow, Haller said.

“Distracted driving continues to be an ongoing concern,” he said. “You can drive anywhere and look to the vehicle to your left or right, and they are often paying more attention to a handheld device than to the road.” 

Crash site investigations revealed distracted driving reduces response time, which hampers the ability of drivers to avoid accidents on icy roads and in low-visibility situations, Haller explained.

As far as blowing snow, however, wind directions have shifted in recent years, nullifying some of the state’s preventive measures.

“Wind coming out of the north is something we’ve seen on I-80 recently, and this has created some severe visibility problems,” Haller said. “We don’t have snow fences on the north side of I-80. They are on the south, where the wind has typically come from.”

Reiner said additional snow fencing is on WYDOT’s list of budget priorities, but the department — like many state agencies — is doing more with less in recent years (https://cowboystatedaily.com/2020/01/30/wyo-highway-maintenance-costs-semi-trucks-extremely-hard-on-highways/). 

As the number of closures rises, WYDOT is also using technology to help drivers navigate interruptions in their travel routes.

The 511 app and Wyoroad website, www.wyoroad.info, keep users informed on up-to-date road conditions and closures. And the WYDOT Authorized Travel (WAT) program allows authorized travelers to travel on sections of otherwise closed roads when authorities determine it is safe to do so. 

Information for the WAT program is located on the Wyoroad website under the WAT icon.

“We’ve got lots of tools in the toolbox, and the goal is to use the right tool to keep the road open,” Reiner said. “The closure of the road is a last resort.”

Bill Sniffin: Who is the Trucker Who Video’d the Interstate 80 Crash?

in Column/Bill Sniffin
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By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

Who is David Cuarezma?

Cuarezma is just a trucker who happened to keep his cool and video that recent horrific crash on Interstate 80 that killed four and injured 30 near Wamsutter. He recently posted on Facebook that his video has 500,000 views, 80,000 shares, and he has received more than 1,000 friend requests. He had 59 friends on FB prior to the posting the video Sunday.

He called Interstate 80 “the most dangerous road in the United State.”

The video worked to make both Cuarezma and Wyoming’s wintry roads famous. One of the first news outlets to post that video was Cowboy State Daily. It had more than 133 shares.

He is the proverbial flatlander being asked by his company to drive across towering Wyoming mountain passes during blizzards, icy roads, and blinding conditions. He is from Miami and lists himself as being from Managua, Managua, which I assume means Nicaragua.

The trucker wrote that he was hanging out at a truck stop near Wamsutter for two days already and his back hurts. He said the company wants him to keep driving even though his truck is damaged. “We refuse to drive a crashed trailer. Is not safe at all, so we are getting fired! Wow!”

We cannot verify any of this except that it is on his Facebook page and bunch of his friends and fellow truckers chimed in on the difficulty of the situation:

Sheali Locklear wrote: “My husband (a trucker) made a last minute decision to not take this route.”

Damon Haynes: “Interstate 80 in winter is no joke.”

Lisa Gardiner: “Devastating, thank the lord you walked away. Your work is obviously not done in the Lord’s eyes. God bring you peace. Can’t imagine what you’re dealing with in your mind right now.”

Brad Daniel: “No. It isn’t the most dangerous road. You morons need to learn how to drive.”

Melanie Hilderbrand: “You are right about Interstate 80. I think our state needs to just shut it down. This wasn’t the first pile up and it won’t be the last. Thanks for being concerned about everyone.”

Some spirited comments were made to the Cowboy State Daily Facebook page that were interesting:

Daniel Ballinger: “The problem is people STOP and then PARK on the highway in bad weather. Who does that? In February 1986 I helped get 200 plus cars off I-80 right near Lone Tree junction. Semis, Dump Trucks and about 200 cars just stopped and parked on the highway. I almost ran into them but was able to drive off road. The wind must have been blowing 60 mph in a White Out. PLEASE Keep in mind I wrote this post before watching the video. People never learn. I remember reading that 91% of all highway fatalities involve tractor trailers. It is simple physics. Passenger cars and trucks have no chance against Semi Trucks that weigh 60,000 to 80,000 lbs. Sad and unnecessary. Be careful out there.”

Patrick Sutton: “This is a terrible thing that plays out time and time again on Wyoming I-80 and I -25, Why? Because people are not used to the roads here in Wyoming. When the WYDOT signs say slow down; that means slow your speed down by 15 or 20 MPH not speed up 20 MPH because you have 18 wheels. Listen truckers: 18 wheels slide just as easily as 4. I want to pinpoint truckers because that is the root of the problem on the highways in Wyoming. I have seen truckers actually run vehicles off the road to save what, 15 seconds, ridiculous!!! We are a mile up people the weather is always going to be more unpredictable than at lower elevations. Wake Up Truckers!”

Steven Lazare: “One observation to make is that I’ve noticed so many foreign nationals driving who have no experience in long hall trucking in snowy weather. It takes years to gain experience. Driving schools don’t give enough warning and training to these relatively new people. I’ve seen pileups from Oregon to Iowa that have happened from lack of understanding when roads become slick or outside temps drop even during rain which alters the handling severely.”

Nina Trapp: “Telling people, especially truckers, to slow down is like talking to a brick wall. I am sick of this. I intend to write governor Gordon and I urge every Wyoming citizen to do the same thing.”

Jennifer Georges: “This tragedy has been repeated so many times on Wyoming’s Highways during the winter. What can we do to prevent this from happening over and over? Too many semi’s too close together. Cars, SUVs and small trucks can’t stand a chance when mixed with semi’s…”

Interstate 80 Remains Closed as WHP Continues Cleanup

in News/Transportation
Interstate 80
3239

Much of Interstate 80 from Cheyenne to Rock Springs remained closed Tuesday morning as the Wyoming Highway Patrol continued its work to remove wreckage from two enormous accidents that occurred Sunday.

The work was made more difficult by strong winds and blowing snow that also contributed to the highway’s closure, said Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Jeremy Beck.

“I know they’re getting closer to clearing some of the debris so possibly we can get a lane open later today,” he said. “They shut down operations last night because of winter conditions.”

Three people died in the two separate accidents west of Rawlins, one involving an estimated 80 to 100 vehicles and the other involving 30 to 40. The names of the people killed in the wrecks have not been released.

As of Tuesday morning, some short stretches of I80 between Cheyenne and Rock Springs were open, but the majority of the road was closed because of the wrecks and continuing winter driving conditions.

Although eastbound lanes of the interstate from Laramie to the Nebraska border were open Tuesday morning, both lanes were closed from Laramie to Rawlins.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation estimated most of the highway would be open Tuesday afternoon.

Three Killed in Wyoming I-80 Wreck, Highway Still Closed

in News
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Three people were killed and a number of others were injured Sunday in two large wrecks on Interstate 80 west of Rawlins.

According to the Wyoming Highway Patrol, more than 110 vehicles were involved in crashes in both lanes of the interstate about 27 miles west of Rawlins.

Sgt. Jeremy Beck, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol, said 80 to 100 vehicles were involved in the crash in westbound lanes of the interstate, while the second wreck, several miles away, involved 30 to 40 vehicles.

Troopers first received reports of the accidents Sunday afternoon, according to a Highway Patrol posting on Facebook.

Weather was reported to be a contributing factor in the accidents.

A continuing investigation into the accident and winter weather conditions forced the closure of Interstate 80 from Laramie to Rock Springs on Monday. Beck said the identities of the people killed in the crash could not be released until the investigation is complete.

The Highway Patrol estimated the highway would not open until Tuesday afternoon.

Wyoming’s Infamous Icy Interstate Inspires Book, Innovation and Preparation

in News
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By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

The Lincoln Monument towers over Interstate 80 at the summit rest area just outside of Laramie. It’s the highest point along the 4,666-mile interstate at 8,640 feet. 

From the summit, winter driving conditions go downhill either way you you travel in the state. To the west, the stretch wreaks so much havoc it has gained national notoriety since the road opened. To the east, the summit rises and twists to Vedauwoo and beyond. Those traveling near the monument know to tread the area carefully. 

West of the summit, the Laramie to Walcott Junction interstate stretch opened in 1967. The selected 120-mile route went against the better judgement of area residents to appease the federal engineers who wanted to shave 19 miles off of the trip, according to historian John Waggener. 

Winter weather conditions closed the road only four days after opening, earning the highway the nickname Waggener adopted for his book on Interstate 80 — the “Snow Chi Minh Trail.” The book documents the history of the interstate, along with its reputation for dangerous winter travel.

Waggener knew the infamous interstate’s reputation and wanted to know the deeper story beneath the asphalt. Through his research he learned that Wyoming locals wanted the interstate to follow existing U.S. Highway 30, but that didn’t align with national interests. 

“In 1959, there was a debate on the Senate floor in Washington,” Waggener said. “The I-80 routing debate got so heated, it called for a special hearing.” 

Locals fought to have the interstate placed near Highway 30. They knew the notorious weather of the region would be problematic. The wind that blows across the present highway between Laramie and Walcott Junction is compressed and strong. It collects snow and gains speed as it funnels through the mountains. 

“The air moves from West to East — the path of least resistance,” Waggener said. “It moves fast. The winds clock over 100 mph. Eighty to 100 mph is not uncommon in that area.”  

That wind and snow create the perfect recipe for disaster. 

Wyoming Department of Transportation figures show 876 crashes caused by winter weather conditions occurred on the interstate in 2013 and 881 occurred in 2014. This year’s count is set at is at 667, but the year isn’t done yet.

On the east side of the pass, the weather also creates drama.

Barbara Sandick is an adjunct instructor at the University of Wyoming. She moved to region after living in the San Francisco Bay area. Commutes were, and still are, a way of life for her. Back in California, she would spend hours in gridlock. Now she can spend up to several hours just getting to Laramie on the winter weather susceptible interstate.

As a student and an instructor, she has commuted from Cheyenne to Laramie for about six years. During that time, she has seen the weather go from bad to unbearable on several occasions.

As dynamic as the stretch of road can be, she can sum it up pretty quickly.

“It’s treacherous,” she said.

Although the years have left her with countless incidents of white-knuckle driving conditions, she said the roads appear safer than when she first started commuting.

“The (Wyoming) Highway Patrol has gotten a lot better at closing the highway,” she said.

Patrol Lt. Kyle McKay has patrolled between Cheyenne and Laramie for about 15 years. Over the years, he has seen winter-related crash numbers decline.

When the roads are deemed impassable, the closures begin. Frequently, these highway condition reports come from patrol cars patrolling the interstates. 

McKay said any combination of conditions, including road surface temperatures, high winds, low visibility and the types of snow, play into the decision-making process. McKay said it isn’t a decision that is made lightly.

“We understand the impact of commercial business and the economic impact of road closures,” he said. 

He added that even though the public needs to travel from point A to point B, the patrol must ultimately consider the safety of the travelers first and foremost.

McKay said many drivers arriving at a closed interstate gate can be confused how the road would be closed when sometimes the weather appears nice at their location. He said there could be a couple of factors at play.

“A person is at exit 357 with a calm sunny day, but 30 miles down the road, the conditions can be bad,” he said.  

Often, the person may not realize the severity of the situation. In some instances, crashes may block the entire road. This can create safety issues for the officials responding to the crash and motorists. The conditions may not be apparent to those stuck on the other side of the gates.

One of the most dangerous areas to drive along I-80 is on bridges.

“Early winter, the mixture of mist and fog creates black ice,” McKay said. “We get a lot of bridge deck crashes.”

McKay said bridges don’t have the earth directly beneath them, which allows them to cool faster than normal roadways. The Wyoming Transportation Department tries to monitor those conditions with gauges that can register the surface temperature of the interstate.

In addition to taking steps such as closing highways and using tools such as road temperatures gauges, there is another device that can help reduce crashes, McKay said —variable speed limit signs.

“I’ve seen a huge reduction in crashes because of the variable speed limit signs,” McKay said.

He cites the simplicity of physics for the effectiveness.

“The slower you are going, the less of an impact there will be,” he said.

Variable speeds limit signs, traffic alert signs stretching over the highway and a special kind of snow fences called “Wyoming Snow Fences,” were all created in the state to improve safety on Interstate 80, said Waggener.

“They were all developed on this stretch of road,” Waggener said.

These innovations were developed in part to remind people to slow down in bad weather. Experienced drivers recommend paying attention. 

“I know, from witnessing so many accidents, you have to drive slow and be situationally aware,” Sandick said.

During the winter, she has seen vehicles involved in accidents line the edge of the snow-packed interstate. Some days, the number seems to just keep growing.

“I would say I’ve seen probably over 20 (in one drive),” she said. 

And that is why she makes sure she drives prepared.

Sandick has learned to pack her pickup with all the essentials. Tow ropes, first aid kits, snowshoes, gloves, shovels, sleeping bags etc. If it can make a difference between life and death, she has it packed and ready to go.

Lt. McKay recommends the essentials: food, water, fuel and proper clothing. He said travelers need to stay in their vehicles and keep warm if they find themselves stranded on the highway. Use the fuel sparingly, and keep the car ventilated. 

Despite all his preparation, McKay also said he has learned to expect the unexpected. He recommends other motorists do the same. 

Five Questions with State Representative Landon Brown on Tolling Interstate 80

in News/Transportation
2159

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
2149

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.

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.”

Proposal to set toll for I-80 revived

in News/Transportation
Wyoming State Senator proposes toll on 1-80
1177

hBy Cowboy State Daily

A state legislator is proposing another attempt to set a toll for travel on Interstate 80 as a way to pay for improvements to Wyoming’s busiest interstate highway.

Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, is proposing the toll as a way to widen I-80 and add a third lane in each direction that could be used by cars and other passengers vehicles.

Money raised by the toll would be dedicated to improvement and maintenance of the highway. 

Under Von Flatern’s plan, tolls would be collected for all vehicles traveling the highway, but the toll of Wyoming residents would be paid from federal mineral royalties that go the Wyoming Department of Transportation. Such a plan would avoid charges of discrimination against out-of-state drivers

“If you want to toll somebody that lives in Nebraska, you have to toll somebody who lives in Wyoming,” he said. “But in this case, they will just take it out of the federal mineral royalties.”

The cost to the state in mineral royalties would not exceed the revenue collected through tolls, he added.

“Eighty percent of the traffic on I-80 does not start or stop in the state of Wyoming, other than maybe to get fuel,” he said.

Von Flatern noted that this past winter, every day saw some segment of the interstate closed because of bad weather.

But Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, said an extra lane would not solve problems caused by the weather.

“Having an extra lane doesn’t correct Mother Nature,” he said.

Bouchard said he is worried the toll could eventually be paid by Wyoming residents.

“Everything that I see, when it talks about a tax or a fee or in this case a toll, it’s framework legislation,” he said. “Meaning that once they get it in, sooner or later we’re all going to pay this toll.”

A toll would have to be approved by the Federal Highway Administration before it could be considered by the Legislature.

Update: Highways, offices to remain closed Thursday as major storm pummels Wyoming

in News/weather
1093
Update from our Robert Geha in the midst of this winter bomb cyclone.

By Cowboy State Daily (Editor’s note: this story will be updated throughout the day. Last updated 7:00PM, March 13, 2019.)

Traffic in southeastern Wyoming ground to a halt on Wednesday as interstate, U.S. and state highways throughout the region were closed by a strong winter storm.

Businesses, schools and government offices in Cheyenne shut down as the storm raged through the region, with heavy snow and winds gusting to more than 50 mph dropping visibility to near zero.

A number, including Laramie County School Districts No. 1 and 2 and the Laramie County government offices, planned to remain closed through Thursday, when the storm hammering an area from Denver to the Dakotas was expected to release its grip on the region.

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning through Thursday night for Laramie and Goshen counties and for the western Nebraska panhandle.

The City of Cheyenne, Laramie County School District No. 1 and the Cheyenne Regional Airport made their decisions Tuesday to close for Wednesday and the State of Wyoming followed suit early Wednesday morning, when Gov. Mark Gordon urged people to stay out of the weather.

“This storm has the potential to be particularly dangerous,” he said in a news release. “My advice is to stay put and shelter in place. Stay home, stay off the roads and stay safe and warm.”

Echoing that advice was the state Department of Homeland Security’s Deputy Director Leland Christensen.

“The message from Homeland Security is take care of your family, stay home and no unnecessary travel,” he said. “If there is a problem, rather than venture out, reach out to your officials and see if we can’t get you some help.”

As conditions deteriorated Wednesday, the Wyoming Department of Transportation closed Interstate 80 from Cheyenne west to Rock Springs and north to Buffalo. Accidents dotted Interstate 80 from Cheyenne to Rawlins.

U.S. and state highways throughout southeastern Wyoming were closed due to slick conditions and limited visibility. The Wyoming Transportation Department offered no estimate for when the roads might be open again.

As roads in and out of Cheyenne closed, truck drivers parked at truck stops or on roads nearby and prepared to spend a day or two waiting for the highways to open again.

At the Flying J Travel Center south of Cheyenne, employees said all 195 of the facility’s semi truck parking spaces were full.

“We have lots of drivers here,” said Amanda Gladgo. “They’re parked on the roads, too.”

Scattered power outages were also reported in rural Laramie County and near Glendo.

Storm conditions prompted the Red Cross to open a shelter at the Converse County National Guard Armory.

The storm was predicted to be the most widespread blizzard in almost 40 years, stretching from Denver north through southeastern Wyoming and into the Nebraska panhandle and Dakotas.

The historic nature of the storm drew a crew from The Weather Channel to Cheyenne on Wednesday.

A number of communities across southern and eastern Wyoming joined Cheyenne in shutting down schools and government offices, including Torrington, Laramie, Casper, Newcastle, Glendo and Chugwater. The University of Wyoming closed its classes at about 1 p.m. Wednesday.

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