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WYDOT

OOPS! Google Maps Is Wrongly Telling People I-80 Is Closed; Reroutes People To Colorado

in News/Transportation
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

It’s a fan favorite scene from “The Office,” where the star of the TV show relies a little too much on GPS and ends up in a lake.

The same thing is happening here in Wyoming, but without the lake. Faulty GPS directions are directing travelers in southern Wyoming to Colorado.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation is warning that Google Maps is wrongly telling people that Interstate 80 near Rock Springs is closed and then rerouting the travelers to Colorado, which would add add many hours on to their drive time.

WYDOT spokesman Doug McGee attributed the faulty information to a construction project on I80.

“There’s a large and lengthy highway construction project in that area, as much as 25 miles or so,” McGee told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “I think Google’s Artificial Intelligence looks at the motion on people’s cell phones and because of this, it reads as the road is closed, which it is not.”

McGee and fellow WYDOT spokeswoman Jordan Achs both recommended that anyone traveling across Wyoming check WyoRoad.Info, WYDOT’s website that has the most up-to-date road conditions across Wyoming.

In the meantime, WYDOT is trying to get its message out on social media channels.

“There are no closures at this time, but there is construction in the area, including head-to-head lanes and reduced speed limits. We are working with Google to try to resolve the issue,” the department posted on Facebook on Wednesday.

Making It Clear

McGee emphasized that drivers do not need to reroute into Colorado in order to get to Salt Lake City, adding unnecessary miles and fuel stops to the trip. Wyoming’s interstates, all of them, are still open.

Achs said no one has yet called to complain about being rerouted through Colorado, but the department has received several calls from people asking whether Interstate 80 is closed, which, again, it is not.

Too Bad

Disappointingly, neither McGee nor Achs have received reports of anyone driving into a lake or on a sidewalk because their GPS told them that was the correct route.

While Google Maps and other GPS services usually are reliable, there have been some entertaining instances of drivers relying on computers more than their own eyes.

Like the man who drove on a stairwell in New York City after his GPS took him on a wrong turn.

Or the Japanese tourists in Australia whose GPS told them they could drive to an island in the Pacific Ocean through nine miles of water.

Or even the women visiting Washington who made a U-turn into a lake.

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Massive Storm Dumps 3 Feet Of Snow In Northwest Wyo; Dozens Of Travelers Rescued

in weather
WYDOT webcam screenshot
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

A major spring snow storm dumped more than 3 feet of snow on northwest Wyoming over the Memorial Day weekend, stranding dozens of travelers on the Chief Joseph Highway.

Dozens of people caught in the storm that closed Wyoming Highway 296, which connects Cody to Cooke City, Montana, and the Beartooth Highway, had to be rescued by Department of Transportation personnel, according to Cody Beers, a department public relations specialist.

“There were vehicles blocked there last night and spun out on the road,” Beers told Cowboy State Daily midday Monday. “There’s at least two feet of snow up on (Dead Indian Pass) and there was a pretty good line of cars, 10 to 12 cars backed up.”

To make matters worse, Beers said a pickup with a camper in the back had spun out, blocking the road for oncoming traffic.



As of late Monday morning, however, Beers said a WYDOT loader had arrived and was clearing the road so vehicles could pass.

“He’s been digging a trail down through the road,” he said, “and I’m sure he’s going to go clear to the bottom and see if there’s other people spun out on the switchbacks on the backside of Dead Indian (Pass).”

Additionally, Beers told Cowboy State Daily a power line had come down on the highway due to the heavy, wet snow, creating dangerous sparks. 

“They had to wait for Rocky Mountain Power to remove the line,” he said, “So (snow removal crews are) trying to catch up now.”

The National Weather Service and Cowboy State Daily’s Don Day had predicted a major winter storm for the state’s northern and central mountains.

“There were warnings put out for 1 to 2 feet in the mountains and it looks like the National Weather Service hit a bullseye,” Beers said, “because it’s deep wet, heavy snow.

“I mean, it’s multimillion dollar snow right now for our farmlands and our mountains,” he continued, “but it comes on a holiday weekend when a lot of people are out there camping, weather forecast be damned.”

Beers urged people to stay off the highways if possible.

“I’m sure people made the decision to try to get out of (the mountains), and then it only took one vehicle to get stopped, to stop the entire convoy of vehicles coming out,” he said.

Chief Joseph was only one of the highways closed due to weather this weekend. Sylvan Pass closed at 6:30 a.m. Monday, cutting off the only access to Yellowstone from the East Gate; U.S Highway 14A was closed from Lovell to Dayton over the Bighorn Mountains, and Beartooth Pass, which was scheduled to open for the season this weekend, remained closed due to the winter storm.

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Teton Commissioners Reverse Course, Approve WYDOT Employee Housing Request

in Housing
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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

The Teton County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a Wyoming Department of Transportation request for a zoning change that will allow the department to build employee housing on its land in Jackson.

The agency has proposed building 28 residential units on its 14.4-acre site to house highway patrol troopers, snowplow drivers and other staff in the Hog Island area to better serve the community. Currently, more than half of the department’s 36 employees live outside Teton County due to high housing costs and a lack of vacancies, according to department Director Luke Reiner.

WYDOT’s zoning request was initially rejected unanimously by the Teton County’s planning commission in December. Among the concerns voiced by the commission were the fact that the Hog Island neighborhood is currently in the midst of being rezoned. Without knowing what impact those zoning changes might have, commissioners said they were hesitant to make a decision on WYDOT’s request.

In an earlier interview with Cowboy State Daily, Chris Neubecker, director of planning and building services for Teton County, said that the commission also had concerns about traffic and water quality as well as the size and scope of the project.

Speaking to the board on Tuesday morning, Keith Compton, WYDOT district engineer, reiterated the advantage that on-site housing would have in recruiting and retaining employees.

He also noted the housing would address some safety concerns stemming from having so many department employees live outside the county.

Compton pointed specifically to the nine highway troopers for the area, only one of whom lives in Teton County. The rest live in communities such as Afton and Victor, Idaho, despite statewide policy that requires employees to live within 10 miles of their duty station. 

Teton is the one county in the state, Compton said, where the department has had to modify those rules to stretch the boundaries to accommodate troopers living beyond that 10-mile limit.

“This creates problems for troopers in terms of after-hours response in Teton County,” he said. “Response times (now are) about an hour-and-a-half on a good day and roughly two hours in bad weather depending upon which troopers are called out.”

Having workers in-county, he added, would improve those response times of troopers and snowplow drivers to arrive at accident scenes quickly to help victims in vehicle accidents and also prevent further crashed by more quickly clearing the roadways from debris and other hazards.

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State Sen. Says 15 Cent Fuel Tax Increase Needed To Fix Roads, Crumbling Bridges

in News/Transportation
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

A bill proposing a 15-cent per gallon increase in gas taxes over the next three years would help the state meet its basic highway maintenance needs, according to one of its sponsors.

House Bill 14, if approved by the Legislature, would raise Wyoming’s fuel taxes for the first time since 2013.

The state’s fuel tax is currently 24 cents per gallon and it would increase to 39 cents per gallon by 2025 under the bill, which is being sponsored by the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee.

The increase would raise an additional $67.4 million per year by 2025.

The bill is awaiting introduction in Wyoming’s House. Should it not be introduced by Friday, it will be dead for this session.

The state’s current tax on gas pumped within Wyoming’s borders is not even close to raising the amount necessary to adequately address maintenance needs, said Sen. Bill Landen, co-chair of the Transportation Committee.

“You know, my dad’s generation, when he pulled up to the pump in Wyoming in 1969, he paid 25 cents for a gallon of gas – and out of that, seven cents went back to the highways,” Landen recalled. “I think that’s somewhere around 28% to 30%. So today, let’s just say we’re paying $3 for a gallon of gas — it would be just 24 cents in taxes that go back to maintain those roads.” 

As a generation, Landen pointed out that today’s residents are not putting money into the state’s coffers proportionate to what’s needed to maintain the state’s highway infrastructure.

“Our bridges are showing it, and if you talk with our contractors in our communities out there, they will tell you that the reckoning is coming,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of deterioration there. We’ve had sinkholes that have begun to appear, and the caution I get from some of our contractors in Casper, for example, is that we’re only going to see more.” 

An increase in the fuel tax would help to alleviate the funding deficit that the state’s highway department is currently facing. 

A similar bill was proposed in 2021 and at the time, WYDOT Public Affairs Manager Doug McGee told Cowboy State Daily that the department was facing a shortfall of about $354 million in unfunded needs per year. 

“Certainly, this fuel tax is very much needed to maintain our roads and bridges – our transportation system – to the level that Wyoming citizens expect,” McGee said at the time.

However, HB14 may not have the support necessary to even be introduced this session.

“You know, some may or may not support a gas tax when it’s all said and done – if that bill were to move forward at 5 cents per year, I’m not sure I would,” said Landen. “But it is at least a consideration.”

That 5 cents per year is also concerning to the Wyoming Trucker’s Association. 

Sheila Foertsch, the association’s managing director, said that while the group supports an increase in the fuel tax, the amount of the proposed increase would be a hardship.

“We are supportive of a fuel tax increase,” she said. “And the last time, in 2013, when the fuel tax was increased 10%, we were right there – because we do feel that funding is necessary for our highway systems. That’s where the trucking industry’s jobs happen, on the highways, and we need safe, efficient highways in this state.”

WYDOT Director Luke Reiner has noted that for every dollar not spent on preventative maintenance on roadways, $4 to $8 will be required for complete highway reconstruction down the road.

“We need to make sure that (the highways) are properly maintained and supported, and we certainly believe that a fuel tax makes the most sense at this point for funding the highway system,” Foertsch said. However, she added the association does not support the currently proposed 15 cent increase, even though it’s intended to be phased in over a three year period. “Our current position is a six cent increase phased in over three years.” 

However, Foertsch noted that while a fuel tax increase might solve a financial problem in the near future, it might not be the right answer down the road.

“There is a growing concern that fuel taxes are not sustainable, because of electric vehicles, and other types of fuel vehicles that are coming,” she said. “And we’re going to see more of them all the time, but for the short term, fuel taxes make the most sense. They’re easy to collect. There’s not another bureaucracy that needs to be dealt with, and they’re fairly inexpensive to collect. So that’s why we continue to be supportive of fuel taxes.”

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Teton County Denies WYDOT Request To Build Its Own Employee Housing On State-Owned Property

in Teton County/News
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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Employee housing proposed by the Wyoming Department of Transportation to keep snow plow drivers and highway patrol troopers living in the community they serve has been rejected by Teton County’s planning commission.

WYDOT has proposed using its 14.4-acre site in the Hog Island area of Jackson to build 28 residential units to house department employees in the area, about half of whom now live in neighboring communities and are sometimes unable to reach Jackson because of bad road conditions, according to department Director Luke Reiner.

“It’s about public safety,” he said. 

But the planning commission in December unanimously rejected a department request to change the area’s zoning to allow the project to proceed.

The vote is the latest development in WYDOT’s struggle to find housing for employees in an area where available housing is very limited.

More than half of WYDOT’s 36 Jackson employees live outside of Teton County in neighboring communities, including plow drivers, maintenance workers, drivers services staff and Wyoming Highway Patrol (WHP) troopers, Reiner said.

This poses a problem, he noted, particularly in bad weather when those employees can be stranded on the wrong side of an avalanche or blocked pass, impacting their ability to provide vital services with sufficient emergency response times. 

The department started taking a serious look at the housing situation around three years ago when Reiner took over as director and saw that it was largely the WHP troopers and snowplow operators living outside the county which affected response times.

Keith Compton, a WYDOT district engineer, said in-town housing would also ease the travel burden faced by the employees, many of who live on the other side of Teton Pass from Jackson and must travel Highway 22, one of the state’s busiest two-lane highways, in an area prone to avalanches.

Recruiting has also been affected by the lack of housing Reiner said, noting the agency is down by six snowplow drivers in Teton County.

Offering housing would help in recruiting and filling open positions, Reiner told Cowboy State Daily.

No Vacancies

For at least the last four years, Teton County rental units have been filled, according to Stacy Stoker, housing manager for Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing, with more than 1,000 applicants waiting to move into units as they become available.

“It’s just next to impossible for anyone to find anything to rent,” she said.

Rentals, when they do become available, are exorbitantly expensive, with studio apartments going for more than $2,000 a month and three-bedroom units renting for upwards of $3,667 monthly. The costs of these units have increased by 137% since 2008, according to a recent data rental report by the housing department. 

Buying property is equally prohibitive, Stoker said, with the average price of a condo running around $1 million and $3 million for a single-family home. 

Given the skyrocketing cost of real estate and lack of availability in Jackson, Reiner said that WYDOT decided building on its own property seemed like the best solution.

Building employee housing on government-owned land is not unprecedented in the region. Teton County Weed and Pest provides on-site housing at their facility in the area.  

“Not Appropriate For The Neighborhood”

But planning commission members said they could not support the change in zoning for WYDOT’s land because the entire Hog Island neighborhood is currently in the process of being rezoned. Commission members felt they needed a better understanding of future plans for the entire neighborhood before making a decision on the WYDOT land, according to Chris Neubecker, director of planning and building services for Teton County.

Neubecker told Cowboy State Daily that the commission also had concerns about traffic and water quality as well as “the size and scale of the future WYDOT housing development or other permitted uses that would be allowed by the new zoning would not be appropriate for this neighborhood.”

The planning commission plays an advisory role for the Teton County Board of Commissioners, which will make the decision on the Transportation Department’s zoning change request after a public hearing on March 1.

The rezoning request has the support of Teton County Engineer Amy Ramage, who said adequate water for the housing would not be a problem because the development could tie into a system built in 2018 for a nearby school.

“I strongly support the intent of the project to house critical workers near their place of employment,” Ramage wrote in comments to the planning commission, noting the project has the potential to improve the level of safety and service to the community.

She also said it would decrease miles traveled by WYDOT employees, which, along with providing affordable housing for service workers, is a goal of the county’s Comprehensive Plan and Integrated Transportation Plan.

The Teton County Housing Department likewise green-lighted the proposal noting the need for affordable housing for employees.

The Teton County Road and Levee Department gave its blessing as well, saying it did not see any issues with the proposed zone change as it relates to local roads. 

Teton County school Superintendent Gillian Chapman voiced concerns regarding the speed limit in front of the elementary school as well as lack of a traffic light but said that WYDOT has indicated a willingness to install appropriate signage. 

However, the project also had opposition.

In a letter responding to the proposal, area resident Rosi De Haan said that adding 28 units would completely change the neighborhood.

She pointed to complaints about the way dirt piles and gravel are stored on the property and said the addition of new residents to the neighborhood would have a negative impact.

“This massive addition of people would also have a negative impact on our precious aquifer and there is an issue about how such a complex would take care of sewage,” she wrote.

In fact, WYDOT is not required to obtain the county’s permission to build the housing units on its own property.

But Reiner said in the interest of maintaining good partnerships with the communities it serves, the department is going through the application process as was suggested by the county. The fees to apply cost WYDOT $1,629.

“We work really hard to be partners with our local entities, counties, municipalities,” he said, “so that’s why we said, ‘yeah, we’ll work through the process.”

Funding

The WYDOT employee housing project is expected to cost $16.5 million and will be built in phases as funding allows.

The agency is hopeful some funding for the project will come from the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – formerly known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The 28 proposed units would be a mix of single- and multi-family two-story units to be built adjacent  to the 49,603-square foot WYDOT facility that houses the driver’s licenses services, vehicle storage and a maintenance shop. 

The agency has not yet determined whether the employee housing would be free to the employees as part of the employment package.

“Typically, it is provided at no cost to the employee in order to encourage recruitment and retention in areas with housing challenges, usually in remote locations,” said Doug McGee, a department spokesman. “However, with this being very early in the process, those details have not been developed.”

Reiner refrained to comment on whether the agency will move forward with plans to build should the board of county commissioners reject the zone change. He reiterated his desire to work with the community and leaders to follow the process.

“If there’s an eventual rejection,” he said, “then one has to weigh options.”

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WYDOT Proposes Reroute Of I-80 To Avoid Winter Closures

in News/Transportation
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

With Wyoming only in the start of its most treacherous travel months of the year, travelers used to driving on Interstate 80 are preparing for the regular closures that accompany winter weather.

What the state’s Department of Transportation would really like to see, however, is an end to some of those closures by rerouting the southern Wyoming highway away from the worst of the weather.

Luke Reiner, WYDOT director, said the agency has made a unique proposal to the federal government – rerouting I-80 to avoid the part of the interstate that closes most often.

“If you look at a map, you’ll see that the old highway, Highway 30, goes further to the north, and then sort of comes down from the north into I-80,” Reiner said. “Rumor has it that when they went to build I-80, that the initial route followed the route of Highway 30. And somebody made the decision, ‘No, we’re going to move closer to these very beautiful mountains,’ to which the locals said, ‘Bad idea,’ based on weather. And it has proved to be true.”

Reiner said if the interstate could be shifted to the north, many weather-related closures could be avoided.

“Our suggestion to the federal government is to say, ‘If you want to do something for the nation’s commerce along I-80, reroute it. Follow Highway 30 — it’s about 100 miles of new interstate, the estimated cost would be about $6 billion,’” he said. “So, it’s not cheap, but our estimate is that it would dramatically reduce the number of days the interstate’s closed, because that’s the section that that kills us.”

Reiner said that essentially, I-80 all the way across Wyoming is a mountain pass.

“I mean, it’s 6,200 feet,” he said. “And so that brings its own trouble, and then of course the drastic wind events, the high wind events and blowing snow that we have in Arlington, around Elk Mountain, really caused a lot of trouble.”

According to staff at WYDOT, in February of 2021, I-80 was closed to commercial truck traffic almost 12% of the daytime hours that month; in December of 2021, the highway was closed to commercial traffic almost 16% of the month due to inclement weather.

“(I-80) is closed more to high profile light vehicles then it is closed to all traffic,” Reiner said. “And that’s an important distinction, because we cannot control the wind events.”

Beyond the impact on Wyoming traffic, Reiner pointed out that closures on this particular stretch of interstate affect the whole country.

“That wind event negatively affects the economy of our nation, because it stops the trucks,” he said. “I-80 is a route of national commerce. And when we shut it down, we’re all just very aware that it’s a big deal.”

John Waggener, whose book “Snow Chi Minh Trail” details the history of the interstate, told Cowboy State Daily the Legislature actually entertained a bill during the 1973 legislative session to close the stretch of the interstate between Laramie and Walcott Junction in the winter.

Waggener noted the state has been innovative in adopting measures to try to keep the road open as safely as possible.

“The Laramie-Walcott stretch of I-80 essentially became ground zero for wintertime highway maintenance innovation,” he said. “This road ushered in the road closure gate (the first in the nation on a major highway), the highway department began the use of the variable message sign on this road, as well as the variable speed limit. 

And perhaps the biggest investment was the snow fence project,” he continued. “Though snow fences existed and were in use around the state, no major technical research had been done for snow fences. I-80 became the testing ground for what became the industry standard snow fence (the design is in use around the world.)”

In spite of the best efforts of the state’s transportation department, closures continue to plague interstate travel. And Reiner is realistic about the reality of the rerouting project coming to fruition.

“I think the chances of this happening are very, very, very, very small,” he said.

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Wyoming Still Doesn’t Have Enough Snowplow Drivers

in News/Transportation
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily 

As winter weather (finally) arrives in Wyoming, the state Department of Transportation is still facing a shortage of drivers to plow thousands of miles of highways.

“We’re about 15% down in our permanent staffing in terms of snowplow drivers,” WYDOT director Luke Reiner told Cowboy State Daily back in October – and this week, he said that number hasn’t changed much.

“We’ve hired a few across the state,” he said, “but we are still very cognizant that we’re short.”

So just as he did when he was the leader of the Wyoming National Guard, Reiner resorts to “calling up” former drivers to fill seats when needed.

“If it’s a regional storm, we’ll search from outside to make sure we cover that area,” Reiner said. “But if it’s a great big storm, then we’ll cover it with people who used to be snowplow drivers and still have a CDL, and we’ll put them back on the road.”

Reiner said it’s not difficult to find former drivers within the ranks of current WYDOT employees.

“It might be someone got promoted up to an area maintenance supervisor position or something like that,” he said. “Well, those guys have said, ‘Hey, we’ll go back, we’ll get some windshield time, and we’ll help out.’”

According to the Federal Highway Administration, Wyoming has 62,620 miles of highways. So finding enough drivers to keep roads clear during a major storm event is critical, according to Reiner.

Reiner said it is easier to find crews for some parts of the state than others.

“The crews in the northern part of the state are probably, percentage wise, better manned than are our I-80 crews,” he said.

Tom DeHoff, WYDOT’s assistant chief engineer of operations, said the department has been able to hire a few snowplow drivers, but because there haven’t been very many snowstorms yet this season, there haven’t been many opportunities for training.

“It’s kind of like the first storm is getting the new guys in the trucks,” DeHoff said. “Because we have a lot of inexperienced snowplow drivers that are still doing ride-alongs with the experienced snow drivers. So that’s taking place right now, to train them, get them used to those roads in those conditions.”

Reiner said the top priority for the department is the safety of drivers on Wyoming highways.

“Our commitment to the state is, ‘Hey, we’ve got a job to do,’” he said. “And to the best of our ability, we’re in the business of getting it done.”

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Wind Speeds Hit 95mph Over the Weekend Creating Numerous Truck Blow-Overs

in News/Accident
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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

At what point is it best for travelers in Wyoming to stay off its highways because of wind?

If the winds are gusting to hurricane strength, that’s a good signal that it may not be the best time to drive, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT).

Many drivers did not get that memo over the weekend as numerous blow-overs were recorded.

WYDOT hasn’t yet tabulated the number of accidents due to the wind but one traveler documented at least eight blow-overs during her 100-mile journey from Rawlins to Laramie.

Teresa Leroux took to Facebook’s “Wyoming Road and Weather conditions” page to post photos of the downed trucks she witnessed during her drive.

“This is right here why you do not ignore the high wind warnings when driving high profile trucks,” she said. 

Jordan Achs, a spokesperson at WYDOT, said the area between Rawlins and Laramie — specifically mentioning Cooper Cove about 35 miles west of Laramie — is one of the windiest areas in the state, along with Arlington on Interstate 80 and Bordeaux on Interstate 25.

These aren’t the only places where gusts can register to be hurricane strength. On Sunday, a wind gust outside of Clark, Wyoming, in northern Park County registered 95 mph.

Arlington wasn’t far behind, however notching a wind gust of 85 mph. Winning the bronze medal for the weekend was a location 18 miles northwest of Buffalo with an 82 mph gust.

WYDOT’s road and weather condition website says if the winds are gusting to more than 60 mph, it’s not a good idea to be on the road.

“Research does show that when wind gusts exceed 60 mph, it is almost certain that multiple vehicles will be blow over or be involved in a crash caused by loss of control,” the site says.

“These crashes often result in debris on the highway and a road closure to all vehicles.”

There were plenty of both over the weekend.

According to statistics from the Wyoming Department of Transportation, there were 167 blow-over crashes on Wyoming highways in 2020.

About one-third of the wind-related rollovers in 2020 involved heavy trucks, those weighing more than 26,000 pounds — 61, or 37%.

Only pickup trucks accounted for more rollovers, with 68 such accidents caused by wind.

From there, it’s a steep drop-off, with SUVs involved in 16 blow-over crashes and 11 involving medium trucks, those between 10,000 – 25,999 pounds.

How to know when it’s safe to drive across windy areas of Wyoming?

Achs said the agency’s “511 page” is a good place to investigate. The page is updated continuously, she said, with information about Wyoming roads.

“Know before you go,” Achs said. “We have sustained wind speeds on there as well as gusts. So you can get can get an idea of what’s ahead on your route.”

“The wind definitely does not discriminate,” she said.

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Uh-Oh, Wyoming Has Shortage of Snowplow Drivers

in News/Transportation
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

The snowstorm that hit Wyoming two weeks ago placed in sharp relief the shortage of qualified snowplow drivers needed to keep the state’s  highways clear during weather events. 

Luke Reiner, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, told  Cowboy State Daily that there are many WYDOT stations around the state that are not staffed as well as the department would like.

“We’re probably about 15% down in our permanent staffing in terms of snowplow drivers,” he said. “And then additionally, we always hire about 40 temporary technicians every year, and have really had a lot of difficulty hiring those.”

In an effort to keep roads open during winter weather events, Reiner said the department has a few strategies. One is the department’s “Snow Plan,” a system of prioritizing roads for clearing which he said worked well last year.

“We said, ‘Hey, every road is not created equal,’” he explained. “And so we’re going to prioritize our interstates, and those are 24-hour roads, and then we’ve got some other roads that are 20 hours, and we will keep that plan in place.”

Additionally, Reiner said the department can move available staff around the state to work on roads that are hardest hit.

“If it’s not a storm that’s across the entire state, we have sent operators from one area to another,” he said, pointing out how the department managed staff during last winter’s major snowstorm in the southeast corner of Wyoming. “So the crews in the southeast, they worked locally, and they started working outward. And then we had crews that attacked it from the north and from the west. And so we used all available forces to clear the roads really, pretty dramatically fast.”

But the shortage of full-time workers was painfully felt in the northeast corner of the state earlier in October. So Reiner said the department used all the resources it had available.

“Anybody who … had a (commercial drivers license) and that was qualified to run a plow truck, they put in a plow truck,” he said. “So mechanics that used to be maintainers, and safety officers that used to be maintainers, and traffic techs that used to be maintainers. In my mind, that was great initiative, and a great use of available resources.”

Reiner also said that the department will continue to implement “rolling closures” on I-80 during major snow events – closing the interstate miles before the actual problem area, near communities that have restaurants and lodging, in order to spread out available resources for travelers who are stranded by a storm.

“So you go back to the population center that is not affected by the storm and close the road there, so that you can start stacking trucks and handling the interstate traffic, because there’s no room at the road where (the closure) is at,” he explained. “It’s a good thing for our trucks, it’s a good thing for the communities, just controlling traffic.”

But the methods the department is using to address the staff shortages are just short-term solutions, which Reiner said officials recognize.

“As a state we’re taking a look at our compensation plan, because our state’s compensation plan has really not been adjusted significantly for some time,” he said. “And the discussion we’re starting to have is, it’s probably time to change that, because while there’s a shortage across the board, our compensation plan really doesn’t compete in terms of attracting men and women to our service.”

And it’s not just snowplow drivers that the department is short on — Reiner said the Wyoming Highway Patrol is also currently understaffed.

“Safety on our roads is more than plows,” Reiner said. “It’s having somebody out there to man the gates, having somebody out there to respond to the accidents when they happen. And in our troopers we’re about 15% down.”

Reiner had high praise for the people who already make up the staff of the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

“I thank the hard working men and women of WYDOT for what they’re doing for this state across the board,” he noted. “And we have lots of job openings, working for a fantastic organization. So if you want a great job, please come join us.”

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Air Force Reserve Lands C-130J Super Hercules on Highway Near Rawlins

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Air Force Reserve Command kicked off a week-long exercise, Rally in the Rockies 2021,  by landing a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft on the highway near Rawlins, Wyoming, Sept. 13.

The highway closed early in the morning to ensure the aircrew could safely practice recovering personnel without access to a runway within simulated enemy territory.

This was one of many training scenarios scheduled for Sept. 13-16 across Colorado and Wyoming, involving more than 12 Reserve and National Guard units. Units are tasked with delivering critical cargo and personnel to U.S. Forces located in simulated contested areas.

“The Rally in the Rockies exercise ensures the Air Force Reserve and National Guard can provide an instantaneous surge capacity across most mission sets to strengthen our active duty counterparts,” said Maj. Nick Hainsfurther, 913th Operations Support Squadron pilot and lead exercise planner.

“With the help of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, we were able to successfully demonstrate our versatile combat airlift capabilities,” he said.

The 913th Airlift Group based out of Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, served as the lead planning unit in the mobility-focused exercise. Reserve Citizen Airmen crafted the scenario and aligned logistics to ensure each unit could focus on training.

In order to effectively accomplish combat operations, current scenarios assume traditional bases will be immediately threatened.

The exercise required various units to come together to deliver cargo, paratroopers, artillery, task force resupply and to conduct personnel extraction. The scenario was designed to test the interoperability of Reserve and National Guard units to execute Multi-Capable Airmen missions in challenging, contested scenarios.

“This is an exercise evolution of the Rally in the Valley 2020 exercise conducted in West Virginia,” said Maj. Christopher Acs, 327th Airlift Squadron pilot and exercise planner. “Our efforts will prepare Reserve and National Guard units to execute at the speed and range required to take on near-peer adversaries. Additional training included combat airlift as well as multi-capable mobility Airmen who are able to refuel and re-arm aircraft in austere locations with minimal support.”

Hainsfurther added that exercises such as RitR21 are critical to ensuring Reserve forces can project the Joint Force when called upon, enabling strategic depth for the future fight.

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Rock Work Getting Underway In Wind River Canyon

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An $8.78 million slide stabilization/rock scaling project is scheduled began Tuesday, alongside U.S. Highway 20/Wyo. Highway 789 through the Wind River Canyon.

Prime contractor Oftedal Construction Inc., of Casper, started hauling equipment into the area — located between Shoshoni and Thermopolis — on Monday.

“The contractor plans to start slide stabilization work, with rock scaling, near the Upper Wind River Campground and the canyon tunnels,” said Wyoming Department of Transportation project engineer Jordan Erz of Worland.

Erz said the state campground will remain open for public use at all times during slide stabilization efforts.

Rockfall scaling locations in Wind River Canyon include milepost 116.3 (highway tunnels), mileposts 116.79 to 116.82 (north of the tunnels/just south of the Fremont/Hot Springs county line), mileposts 118.12 to 118.18, and mileposts 120.41 to 120.61 (3 miles north of the county line).

“The contractor should only be working one of these sections at a time unless unforeseen circumstances change this schedule,” Erz said. “Traffic should expect 20-minute delays, with one-way traffic when everything is clear for falling rocks. The contractor expects these areas to take a month to manually clear loose rocks from the canyon wall ledges.”

The Wind River Canyon slide stabilization project includes slide repair, grading, slide stabilization rock (SSR), manual rock scaling, rock fall mitigation and other work on U.S. 20/Wyo. 789 from milepost 115.9 through 123.12 inside the canyon.

Contract completion date is Nov. 30, 2022.

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Wyoming Highway Projects Continue To Delay Traffic Across The State

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Those thousands of visitors making their way to the state’s top tourist destinations may be getting a break home, but they won’t get much in the way of a break from highway construction delays this week.

Construction projects continue at full speed across the state, with dozens of projects on Wyoming’s roads creating the potential for slowed and stopped traffic, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s road condition website.

On Interstate 80, delays are expected with a bridge replacement project near Hillsdale, while pavement marking projects in Laramie county will also cause delays on the highway west of Cheyenne. Another bridge rehabilitation project will cause delays near Laramie.

Continuing construction on a project to expand the parking lot at Fort Steele will continue to delay traffic west of Laramie, and a construction project near Elk Mountain will delay traffic there as well.

On Interstate 25, bridge rehabilitation projects are expected to cause delays between Cheyenne and the Colorado border, as well as south of Chugwater, while delays of up to 20 minutes are expected south of Kaycee for a paving project.

On Interstate 90, a bridge repair project east of Moorcroft is expected to create some traffic delays.

A number of projects are also underway on state and federal highways. Work causing delays in travel can be expected in the following areas:

U.S. Highway 14/16/20 west of Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes;

Wyoming Highway 120 northwest of Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes;

Wyoming Highway 296 northwest of Cody, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 14A between Cody and Powell, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 14A near Powell, delays of up to 20 minutes;

U.S. Highway 14A near Byron, expect delays; 

U.S. Highway 310/Wyoming Highway 789 near Cowley, delays of up to 20 minutes with stopped traffic;

U.S. Highway 14A/310/Wyoming Highway 789 near Lovell, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 16/20/Wyoming Highway 789 near Worland, delays of up to 20 minutes;

U.S. Highway 20/Wyoming Highway 789 near Shoshoni, delays of up to 20 minutes;

U.S. Highway 287 northwest of Lander, delays of up to 20 minutes;

Wyoming Highway 131 in Sinks Canyon, delays of up to 15 minutes;

U.S. Highway 287/Wyoming Highway 789 southeast of Lander, delays of up to 15 minutes;

U.S. Highway 26/287 northwest of Dubois, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 26/287 near Moran Junction, delays of up to 20 minutes;

U.S. Highway 189/191/26/89 south of Jackson, delays of up to 20 minutes between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.;

U.S. Highway 89 near Thayne, delays of up to 20 minutes with stopped traffic;

Wyoming Highway 372/374 west of Rock Springs, delays of up to 10 minutes with stopped traffic;

U.S. Highway 16 near Ten Sleep, delays of up to 20 minutes;

U.S. Highway 16 between Ten Sleep and Buffalo, delays of up to 15 minutes with stopped traffic;

U.S. Highway 20/26 west of Casper, delays of up to 20 minutes;

U.S. Highway 20/26/87 near Casper, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 20 east of Lusk, delays of up to 15 minutes with stopped traffic;

U.S. Highwy 85 between Lusk and Lingle, expect delays;

U.S. Highway 85 near Cheyenne, expect delays, and

Wyoming Highway 211 northwest of Cheyenne, expect delays.

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Signs Of Summer: WYDOT To Open Highway 14A in Northern Wyoming on Friday

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The Wyoming Department of Transportation is set to open US 14A by noon on Friday, May 28.  

US 14A is one of four mountain passes that are affected by seasonal winter closures. This 22-mile stretch of scenic mountain road is located in the Bighorn Mountains of north-central Wyoming. WYDOT closes these routes in the late fall once maintaining the roads due to heavy, drifting snow makes it difficult and impractical. 

Crews from both the Lovell and Burgess Junction sides began snow removal operations at the beginning of May with a target date of Memorial Day to open.  The snowpack was low this season, which allowed crews to complete plowing operations earlier than usual.  

This early completion allowed construction contractors to perform crack seal operations on US 14A while it is still closed, thus eliminating the associated costs of traffic control. These operations are scheduled to be completed the week of May 24 just in time for the official opening of US 14A. 

Although access to many forest service roads is not available at this time, motorists are asked to stay on US 14A and not attempt to access any other roads at this time. 

WYDOT reminds motorists to obey all speed limits, wear your seatbelt at all time, watch for wildlife and enjoy this spectacular drive. 

The Wyoming Department of Transportation is set to open US 14A by noon on Friday, May 28.

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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 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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27 Car Pile-Up Closes Interstate 80 East Of Laramie, Wyoming

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Another big pile-up on Interstate 80 in southeast Wyoming kept the highway closed in both directions on Friday.

The Wyoming Highway Patrol said the series of accidents involved over 27 vehicles — 23 of which were commercial trucks.

The accident occurred this morning at 10:18am in the eastbound lanes east of Laramie.

A highway patrolman pulled over to check on a commercial truck stuck in the roadway. As the trooper was speaking with the driver, another vehicle ran into the back of the stopped truck. This caused several other drivers to lose control of their vehicles and crash.

No fatalities have been reported from this pile-up but injured parties were taken to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie. Earlier this month, three people were killed when more than 100 vehicles were involved in a series of accidents on Interstate 80 near Wamsutter, Wyoming.

If the amount of closures seem high this year, you’re not imagining things.

The number of times the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) closes Interstates 80 varies each winter season, which is measured from October to May, but the 2019-2020 season has already broken five-year records, according to information provided by Luke Reiner, WYDOT director 

“Our goal is not to close roads,” Reiner 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.”

WYDOT Spends 30% of Budget to Keep Wyoming Roads Clear During Winter

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Maintaining Wyoming’s roads through the winter is costly and complicated by high elevations, but innovation and preparation help the state keep ahead of the weather, a Wyoming Department of Transportation spokesperson said.

“As soon as you enter Wyoming, you start to climb in altitude,” WYDOT Public Affairs Manager Doug McGee said. “Especially with Interstate 80, it’s essentially a 400-mile-long winter pass. The entire stretch is above 6,000 feet in elevation.”

WYDOT expects to spend about $28 million on winter road maintenance — about 30 percent of its annual budget — in fiscal year 2020, which began in July 2019, said WYDOT Chief Engineer Shelby Carlson. 

In 2015, WYDOT’s winter maintenance costs were about $21 million, but between 2016 and 2020, the costs have fluctuated between $26 million and 32 million annually.

“We’ve had some pretty major storms in these last years,” Carlson said. “It all just depends on the levels of moisture we get. During drought years, the costs are lower.” 

Aging equipment and increased interstate traffic are also contributing factors, she added.


RELATED VIDEO: Watch WYDOT Clear Snowy Range Road

Know when to hold ‘em

WYDOT annually maintains about 6,700 centerline miles, a road measurement that includes all lanes in a single stretch of pavement.

Interstates 80, 25 and 90 account for about 900 centerline miles.

According to WYDOT documents, the majority of 2020’s winter maintenance costs are nearly evenly split between labor, budgeted for $9 million, materials, budgeted for $8.6 million, and equipment, budgeted for $9.6 million. Contractor services and miscellaneous costs are budgeted at about $755,000.

“We have a lot of snow plows, tow plows and rotaries to help us clear the roads,” Carlson said. “And we use chemicals, sand and liquids to remove the ice and snow.”

In all, the state owns 400 conventional snow plows, 18 rotary plows and seven tow plows, a trailer-mounted plow towed behind a plow truck, she said.

However, WYDOT Director Luke Reiner, a retired U.S. Army Maj. General, said keeping Wyoming’s roads safe isn’t just about manpower and equipment.

“Part of keeping those roads open is knowing when to close them,” Reiner explained. “We’ve learned the hard way over many years that preemptively closing roads to allow our crews to get in there and do the work saves lives.”

Closing Wyoming’s major thoroughfares for any reason costs transport companies millions of dollars by the hour, but Reiner said WYDOT discovered closing the roads as soon as a storm hits can reduce overall closure times.

“The road is closed for a shorter time, because there’s no crashes to clear,” he said. 

Beet juice and barn wood

Plows might be WYDOT’s most recognizable snow-removal method, but the department uses a variety of other strategies to combat winter conditions, Carlson said.

“Our materials costs include salt and sand, salt-brine solution, magnesium chloride and beet juice among other things,” she said.

While some de-icers like salt-brine solution freeze at 6 degrees below zero, WYDOT’s beet juice solution doesn’t freeze until the temperature reaches 26 below zero.

“It’s a byproduct of the sugar beet processing we have here in the state,” Carlson said. “And it’s more ecologically friendly than some other solutions.”

WYDOT also uses snow fences to prevent drifting in high wind areas.

“A snow fence is constructed of wood and set perpendicular to the wind to break up wind turbulence, causing the snow to deposit at the fence,” Carlson said.  

The fences, typically 10 to 12 feet tall have been used by WYDOT since 1971. Depending on the fence pattern, the fences can cost $400-600 per panel, but maintenance pays for itself.

“Because there is a market for weathered wood, we have contractors pay us to maintain the fences,” Carlson said.

Contractors pay the department to replace the fencing’s old planks with new ones, so they can sell the weathered planks to the growing “barn wood” market.

The state owns nearly 450 miles of snow fence, but Reiner said WYDOT is looking to increase that mileage.

“We’d like more,” Reiner said. 

Carlson added, “A whole lot more.”

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

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

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

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

Related: Federal bill would help with highway maintenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

To vet Wyoming vanity plates, WYDOT consults Urban Dictionary

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Wyoming Vanity Plates
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By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

The average English-speaking American adult has a 42,000 -word vocabulary. But the state employees who vet submissions for vanity Wyoming license plates have been exposed to thousands more. 

L0RDY. GTF0

The combination of up to five letters, numbers and spaces allowed on vanity plates never ceases to inspire the imaginations of Wyoming drivers. 

Some vanity plate requests are so immature they’re LAAME. Others are RCST, PERV or make references to DRUGS. And some are so graphic, their associated imagery is FDUP and can make UPUKE.

0HEL.

When applicants request a vanity plate, the Wyoming Department of Transportation makes it clear: “Any combination that spells, connotes, abbreviates, or otherwise stands for language that is obscene, vulgar, indecent, or pruriently suggestive will not be allowed,” according to the application form. 5H1T.

To ensure a smutty or otherwise inappropriate request doesn’t sneak through, the WYDOT’s Motor Vehicle Services staffers cover their BUTTS a few ways. 

The division maintains a list of 3,255 words – and growing – that employees can cross reference if a request’s meaning isn’t obvious. All of NSFW words capitalized in this story can be found on that list.

The staffers can also search online, including on Urban Dictionary, said Debbie Lopez, the WYDOT Motor Vehicle Services manager.

When applying for a vanity plate, the WYDOT form asks for the meaning behind the requested combination. 

After all, one person’s CRAP could be another person’s nickname. “If the customer has a meaning for their combination that doesn’t make sense–for example, if customer wants a random four- to five-letter word and says it is the initials of four or five of their friends, we will check the word/acronym against sources on the internet, like Urban Dictionary,” Lopez said. If the person issuing the plate has reservations about a request, the question will be put to a team of Motor Vehicle Services staffers who will research the issue and offer opinions. If no resolution can be reached, the plate goes to Lopez for approval or denial.

At any given time, Lopez says there are about 20,000 to 25,000 vanity plates on the road. That means employees are constantly vigilant when reviewing applications. People’s minds aren’t exactly climbing out of the gutter.  “Because of all the texting acronyms, the process is becoming more work-intensive,” she said. 

DAMN. 

Analysis: Who Uses the Wyoming State Plane the Most?

in Government spending/News/Transportation
Wyoming state plane
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s two twin-engine passenger jets — nicknamed “Wyoming’s Air Force” — spend most of their time ferrying state officials around Wyoming, but about 10 percent of the flights leave the state, according to state records.

“I don’t know the background of all the flights that are flown out of state,” said Brian Olsen, the Wyoming Department of Transportation aeronautics division administrator. “It could be cheaper (than driving), but I think a lot of it could have to do with scheduling.”

Although the planes are maintained by WYDOT, Olsen explained each state agency can use them.

“We submit two reports to our Transportation Commission, detailing how many flights the planes took and (which agency) used them,” he said.

However, WYDOT does not keep track of the reasons for the trips taken by other agencies.

Olsen said he was not aware of a specific organization or committee charged with overseeing who uses the planes for what.

Previously, Cowboy State Daily reported the jets cost about $1 million to operate and maintain each year and made 663 trips carrying 2,213 passengers during fiscal year 2018. WYDOT reported about 12 percent of those flights were out-of-state.

In fiscal year 2017, the two planes logged a total of 725 one-way legs and 2,294 passengers with about 10 percent of those flights leaving the state. During fiscal year 2016, they completed 852 legs carrying 2,604 passengers and about 10 percent of flights left the state.

The numbers for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 do not accurately reflect the planes’ usage, however, WYDOT spokesperson J. O’Brien said.

If members from two agencies board the same flight, WYDOT records the trip as two legs instead of one. Also, the passenger numbers for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 include flight and maintenance crew, which are not typically considered passengers. WYDOT listed nearly 30 categories of users for each of the three years, during all of which the department was the planes’ primary user. In fiscal year 2016, WYDOT used the planes for 246 legs, carrying 827 passengers. In fiscal year 2017, the department flew 834 passengers on 222 legs, and during fiscal year 2018, WYDOT reported using the planes for 224 legs, carrying 693.

The governor’s office is consistently the second-highest user when combined with the governor’s residence category, which is used to log the flights of Wyoming’s first lady.

In fiscal year 2016, the governor’s office logged 123 legs carrying 452 passengers, while the governor’s residence reported 21 legs carrying 39 passengers. During fiscal year 2017, the governor’s office was responsible for 127 legs carrying 439 passengers, and the governor’s residence logged 14 legs carrying 29 passengers. And in fiscal year 2018, the governor’s office reported 97 legs carrying 330 passengers, while the governor’s residence recorded 27 legs carrying 44 passengers.

The Office of the Governor, Mark Gordon, who took office in 2019, said in a prepared statement: “Governor Gordon supports fiscal responsibility and the judicious use of taxpayer dollars. Several WYDOT studies have determined that owning state aircraft is more cost-efficient than private charters or driving vast distances.

“With his demanding schedule and numerous commitments across the state, the governor utilizes air travel on a limited basis in order to conduct official duties and be as accessible as possible to all Wyoming citizens, not just those in Cheyenne,” the statement concluded.

In fiscal year 2016, the Wyoming Department of Corrections Parole Board tied with the University of Wyoming for third-most user of the planes with both logging 120 legs. WDOC’s legs carried 352 passengers, while UW carried 278.

Neither agency logged more than 100 legs in fiscal yer 2017, but in fiscal year 2018, UW ranked the third-highest user with 112 legs carrying 295 passengers.

UW also owns two Beechcraft King Air turboprop aircraft, UW spokesperson Chad Baldwin said. One is designated for research, and the other is used for transportation.

Olsen said legislators can also use the state’s passenger jets, but those occurrences are rare.

“If one of them were to use the planes, they would have to log it under an agency they are working with or the Wyoming Legislative Service Office (LSO),”  he explained.

The LSO logged 8 legs carrying 16 passengers in fiscal year 2016, and 8 legs carrying 14 passengers in fiscal year 2017. No trips were recorded by the LSO in fiscal year 2018.

In addition to carrying passengers, WYDOT Director and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. K. Luke Reiner said the planes could be used during emergency situations.

“They can be used for emergency viewing of a wildfire,” Reiner said. “And, let’s say WYDOT needs to look at a flood area or mud slide, they could be used for that, too.”

WYDOT crews work to clear Snowy Range Road

in News/Transportation
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Crews from the Wyoming Department of Transportation are working this week to clear the Snowy Range Road between Laramie and Saratoga of snow drifts reaching more than 6 feet in depth.

Crews from Laramie and Saratoga are trying to clear all snow off of the 68-mile stretch of Wyoming Highway 130 before the Memorial Day holiday, an effort that usually begins in mid-April, said WYDOT spokesman Matt Murphy.

“A lot of them (crew members) really enjoy it,” Murphy said. “They take pride in their work.”

Using bulldozers, rotary plows and snowplows, the crews will work to remove all the snow from the highway that provides a scenic link between Laramie and Saratoga.

“It’s very beautiful, it’s kind of one of our more hidden gems in Wyoming,” Murphy said of the highway. “It’s a really scenic highway and there’s just a lot of recreation opportunities.”

The road closes every year for the winter — last year, it closed on Nov. 6 — and then reopens for summer travel, usually by or near Memorial Day.

Murphy reminded drivers that even though the highway may be open by Memorial Day, slush and water can still find their way onto the road as snow along the highway continues to melt, creating icy patches at times.

“It is still May and we are high up in Wyoming, so it can always get a little icy, particularly in the mornings and evenings, when it’s out of the sun,” he said. “So we always tell people to watch out for some slush and some slick spots until it can really get melted down later in the season.”

Ride along in a WYDOT snowplow as drivers work to reopen Wyoming roads

in weather
WYDOT snowplow ride along after a blizzard
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There is a lot of manpower – and horsepower – required to get things back up and running after a massive storm.

Our videographer, Mike McCrimmon, rode along with Wyoming Department of Transportation snowplow driver Duard Dillday III today as state transportation workers hustled to clear and reopen Wyoming roads after the #BombCyclone blizzard blanketed the region with heavy snow and severe winds. #wywx

See our extensive coverage of the storm here, here, and here. And be sure to check out our Facebook and Twitter for the latest local updates delivered to your device daily.

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