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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.

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