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Wyoming Department of Transportation

WYDOT Cancels Prestige License Plates Because of Aluminum Shortage

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

It’s a sad day for drivers who want to add some bling to their license plates. Because of a national aluminum shortage, the availability of new prestige plates in Wyoming has been paused.

A prestige plate is one that is personalized to show off one’s profession, a hobby, a name or whatever is preferred. In the popular TV shows “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” for example, attorney Saul Goodman had a license plate noting his profession: LWYRUP (Lawyer Up).

But it’s all on hold in Wyoming.  Because of the shortage, plates are just going to be produced in a sequential order. No specialization allowed.

It’s not because it takes more aluminum to create personalized plates. Rather, it’s because a personalized plate is a luxury whereas a regular license plate is a necessity. It’s a matter of prioritization said a Wyoming Department of Transportation official.

“The primary function of a license plate is really for vehicle identification,” WYDOT Support Services Administrator Taylor Rossetti told Cowboy State Daily.

“The idea of a prestige plate is really a ‘nice to have’ type of thing rather than a ‘need to have,’” Rossetti said.  “We need to make sure folks who need to have a license plate get the license plate they need.”

It’s not going to have a big effect on most drivers, Rossetti said.

That’s because the suspension would only apply to requests for new personalized plates. Orders to renew personalized plates won’t be affected because license plates are renewed every eight years — and Wyoming is in the middle of that cycle right now.

So, like everyone else, people who already have personalized plates would just receive a sticky tab with the year on it which is placed on the license plate to show it has been renewed.

Rossetti thinks the suspension will be short-lived and could be canceled as soon as July.

So far no one has reached out to complain, he said.

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Wyoming Road Construction Update: Tuesday, June 22, 2021

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Hurry up and wait remains the rule for a number of Wyoming’s highways as the state’s road construction season continues in full swing.

According to the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s road condition website, numerous projects are underway that could slow travelers across Wyoming this week.

On Interstate 25, a bridge rehabilitation project between Cheyenne and Chugwater is expected to cause some delays, while a paving project south of Kaycee will slow traffic and create delays of up to 20 minutes.

Delays are also expected on Interstate 90 east of Moorcroft because of bridge repair work.

On Interstate 80 a bridge replacement near Hillsdale east of Cheyenne is expected to cause some travel delays, as is a pavement marking project west of Cheyenne. A construction project west of Laramie will narrow travel to one lane in each direction and delays are expected to result from another construction project near Fort Steele. Delays are also expected to result from a construction project near Elk Mountain and west of Rock Springs.

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

Wyoming Highway 296 northwest of Cody, expect delays;
Wyoming Highway 120 northwest of Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 14/16/20 in Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;
Wyoming Highway 120 south of Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;
U.S. Highway 14A between Cody and Powell, expect delays;
U.S. Highway 14A east of Powell, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 14A/310/Wyoming Highway 789 northeast of Powell, expect delays;
U.S. Highway 310/Wyoming Highway 789 north of Powell, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;
U.S. Highway 16/20/Wyoming Highway 789 north of Worland, delays of up to 15 minutes;
U.S. Highway 16/20/Wyoming Highway 789 near Worland, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 16 east of Worland, delays of up to 15 minutes, stopped traffic;
U.S. Highway 16 near Ten Sleep, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 26/287 near Moran Junction, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 26 northwest of Dubois, expect delays
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 189/191 southeast of Jackson, delays of up to 10 minutes;
U.S. Highway 89 south of Alpine Junction, delays of up to 20 minutes with stopped traffic;
U.S. Highway 20/Wyoming Highway 789 near Shoshone, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 289 north of Lander, 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;
Wyoming Highway 22 northeast of Bairoil, delays of up to 15 minutes;
U.S. Highway 20/26 west of Casper, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 20/26/87 in Casper, expect delays;
U.S. Highway 85 between Lingle and Lusk, expect delays;
Wyoming Highway 211 northwest of Cheyenne, expect delays, and
U.S. Highway 85 in Cheyenne, expect delays.

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Construction Season in Wyoming Causes Continuing Delays On Highways

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Construction season continues to be in full swing on Wyoming’s highways.

According to the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s road condition website, numerous projects are underway that could slow travelers across Wyoming this week.

The interstate highways are seeing plenty of work this week.

On Interstate 25, bridge rehabilitation and pavement marking work south of Cheyenne, bridge rehabilitation between Cheyenne and Chugwater and bridge construction in Casper are all expected to cause some traffic delays.

Near Kaycee, the DOT is advising drivers a highway construction project could create 20-minute delays with stopped traffic.

Interstate 90’s only project that could delay traffic is east of Moorcroft, where bridge repairs are underway.

On Interstate 80, a series of road projects are expected slow traffic east of Cheyenne, in Telephone Canyon between Cheyenne and Laramie, west of Laramie, at Elk Mountain, between Sinclair and Walcott and on either side of Rock Springs.

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

Wyoming Highway 296 northwest of Cody, expect delays;
Wyomig Highway 120 northwest of Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 310/Wyoming Highway 789 north of Powell, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;
U.S. Highway 14A/310/Wyoming Highway 789 near Lovell, expect delays;
U.S. Highway 14/16/20 in Cody, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;
Wyoming Highway 30 between Basin and Burlington, delays of up to 15 minutes;
U.S. Highway 16/20/Wyoming Highway 789 near Worland, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 16 between Worland and Ten Sleep, delays of up to 15 minutes, stopped traffic;
U.S. Highway 16 east of Ten Sleep, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 26/287 between Moran Junction and Dubois, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 20/Wyoming Highway 789 at Shoshoni, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 287 north of Lander, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;
U.S. Highway 287/Wyoming Highway 789 southeast of Lander, delays of up to 15 minutes;
Wyoming Highway 28 south of Lander, delays of up to 15 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 189/191 at Pinedale Bridge, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 89 between Thayne and Alpine Junction, delays of up to 20 minutes, stopped traffic;
U.S. Highway 20/26 west of Casper, delays of up to 20 minutes;
U.S. Highway 220 southwest of Casper, delays of up to 15 minutes;
U.S. Highway 20/26/87 in Casper, expect delays;
U.S. Highway 85 between Lingle and Lusk, expect delays, and
Wyoming Highway 211 northwest of Cheyenne, expect delays.

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Wyoming Will Re-Open 9 Of 10 Closed Rest Stops

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily 

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

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

 The nine rest areas include:

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

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

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

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

The rest areas should reopen ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s been a yo-yo for Senate File 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another individual appeared perplexed:

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

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WYDOT Data Shows Big Drop In Wyoming Traffic

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyomingites are traveling significantly less since Gov. Mark Gordon urged residents to stay at home on March 25, according to state Transportation Department figures.

While a mobility tracking company has given the state poor marks for the ability of its residents to reduce their travel since the outbreak of the coronavirus, state figures show residents are paying attention to calls to stay home, said a spokesman for Gov. Mark Gordon.

“The governor believes most people are heeding the call to stay home,” Michael Pearlman said in an email. “Location data that has been reported nationally may paint an incomplete picture of Wyoming residents’ social distancing efforts, given our rural population and the long distances many residents must travel to purchase food and essentials.”

Beginning the week of March 18, the Wyoming Department of Transportation reported a marked decrease in traffic — compared to average data collected between 2017 and 2019 — on Interstate highways, non-interstate national highway systems (NHS) and non-NHS roads like Happy Jack Road west of Cheyenne.

“Overall, we’ve seen less traffic on all the roads we track,” said Martin Kidner, WYDOT’s state planning engineer. “The decline is led by small automobiles, but we’ve seen less semi-trucks, too.” 

Non-Interstate NHS roads, such as U.S. Highway 85, and Non-NHS lanes, which are typically service roads, experienced the biggest decreases in travel with a 35% reduction in the week of March 18 and a 30% reduction the week of March 25.

Interstates were close behind with a decrease of 27% the week of March 18, followed by a 32% decrease the week of March 25.

WYDOT Director and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner said decreases in traffic are not uncommon this time of year as a result of bad weather and road closures, but Wyoming’s roads were open in late March, leading him to believe the decline was in response to the governor’s advisory.

“I don’t know how those national-level agencies make their calculations, but traffic is dramatically down,” Reiner said. “Intuitively, if you live out in the county, you’re going to put some miles on to get some groceries or visit the hospital. I’m statistically comfortable with the amount the traffic has dropped.”

On the other hand, Reiner said he hopes traffic does not decline much further, because his department is reliant on revenue from fuel taxes.

With spring storms on the horizon, Reiner said his staff has worked in rotating shifts from home to decrease the potential for infection or spread of COVID-19. The effort could prevent staffing shortages during blizzards.

“We are very adequately staffed,” Reiner said. “I have no worries.”

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DOT continues work to stop falling rock on highway near Cody

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Department of Transportation is continuing its work to stabilize falling rock that has created a hazard for several years on a highway between Cody and Yellowstone National Park.

The department has been working since 2017 to stop rock from falling from steep hillsides onto U.S. Highway 14-16-20.

While the project has been expensive, it has been necessary for the safety of travelers in Wyoming, said Cody Beers, a spokesman for the DOT.

“We’ve been working in this area for a couple of years,” he said. “We kept finding more rockfall situations. We had to do some redesign. A lot of money was spent here, but it was about saving lives.”

The project was marked earlier this year by the death of a worker who was hit by a rock, Beers said.

“Through the history of this road, there’s been three or four different projects that have taken place,” he said. “And we have lost human life on every project that we’ve done on this section of road.”

Similar work is being done on the Chief Joseph Highway and the Wind River Canyon. Beers said the end result will be a safer highway system.

“We believe that the last couple projects over the last couple years that we’ve been doing have significantly upgraded the safety of this area, for residents, for travelers,” he said.

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

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By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That wind and snow create the perfect recipe for disaster. 

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s treacherous,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He cites the simplicity of physics for the effectiveness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is why she makes sure she drives prepared.

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

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

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

Military experience translates well into civilian life, say vets

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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

On day one of boot camp, every recruit is taught the values of punctuality, personal grooming and working together, but some lessons gleaned from military experience aren’t as immediately obvious.

Ret. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner, formerly the Wyoming Military Department’s adjutant general, joined the army in 1982 to experience something new, but stayed in as the service reforged his sense of duty.

“I thought it would be fun,” Reiner said. “The local (Army National Guard) unit was a combat engineer unit, and they would do cool things with explosives.”

He didn’t intend to become a career soldier, but the military became an integral part of his life.

“Initially, you stay because it’s cool, and you have a purpose,” he said. “But, in my mind, the purpose is what grows on you over the years. In the end, you stay because that becomes your calling in life.”

In March, Reiner hung up his uniform and accepted a new leadership role as director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation. The helmets changed to hardhats and the uniforms switched from green suits to orange vests, but he said most of his experience translated easily. 

“My job as the adjutant general was very helpful in transitioning to WYDOT,” Reiner explained. “I oversee roughly the same number of people. But whereas in the guard, there were lots of part-time positions, at WYDOT, there are more full-time positions.”

Both entities break down into divisions or districts, each with their own needs and specialties. 

Whether soldier or civilian, he said employees have the same needs.

“Personnel issues don’t change,” Reiner said. “You still have to ensure your men and women get paid, have good health care and a place to live.”

Reiner still rises early to for physical training, but he has plans to grow out his beard eventually and settle into civilian life.

“The military was a phenomenal job,” he said. “It was an opportunity to serve the state and nation and be part of the backbone of this nation. I feel like I have the opportunity to continue doing that here at WYDOT, and for that, I am thankful.”

Managing relationships

In Iraq, David Sheppard, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant, learned to balance the needs of a village with the demands of a nation at war.

“Our job was to remove the temporary bridges that were installed (on a primary traffic route) and build permanent roundabouts and culverts,” Sheppard explained. “Part of that mission was not only construction, but there was a small village right off the road we needed to maintain a positive relationship with.”

Many Iraqi citizens viewed the coalition forces as foreign meddlers with no understanding of local politics and customs. Relationships between the local populace and soldiers were often tense. 

“In the military, you’re forced into a group, a unit, regardless of race, religion or economic factors — it’s a kind of melting pot — and expected to work together as a team,” Sheppard explained. “You become very effective at making it a productive situation despite your differences.”

After working with the Iraqi town’s leadership to ensure their needs were also represented in the project, Sheppard’s unit finished the roundabout and moved down the road without incident. 

About a month later, a coalition forces patrol rolling through the town discovered and seized about 160 tons of explosive materials intended for use as improvised explosive devices that could have been used against Sheppard and his unit.

“I always circle back to how effective it was to take care of people and manage those relationships — it saved my life,” Sheppard said. “I try to translate that experience to my own everyday life in just being a productive human.”

Sheppard joined the guard in 1999 at 18 and served for about 12 years. Nowadays, he manages 911 Roofing Solutions Inc. in Cheyenne and uses the leadership skills he learned as a soldier to guide his management style.

“In the civilian world, you may encounter a handful of leadership styles over the course of a career,” Sheppard said. “But in the military, you’re exposed to so many different leaders at so many levels, that it really gives you a good perspective. It gives individuals the opportunity to take the good and throw away the bad in forming their own leadership style.”

Arena of beliefs

Christy and Andrew Stigen met while stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. 

Not long after they started dating, they encountered their first major hurdle as a couple — dual deployments to separate areas of operation. 

“I think it was a lot easier for us to transition back than it was for others,” said Andrew Stigen, who exited the U.S. Air Force as a staff sergeant in 2011. “Both of us came back with the same experience. Other couples, where one stays behind and the other deploys, can have differing expectations when they are reunited, but we knew what we needed from each other.”

Serving together was not only the foundation of their marriage, but it allowed them to cultivate their world view as a couple.

While Andrew Stigen grew up in Casper, Christy Stigen was raised in a small Texas town. 

“Being in the military exposed me to a lot of cultures,” said Christy Stigen, who left the U.S. Air Force as a staff sergeant in 2012. “I’m more open to new experiences now.”

Andrew Stigen said serving alongside people from every walk of life helped him understand viewpoints he might have disregarded otherwise.

“Everybody has a different mindset growing up in the world,” he explained. “Until people are thrown into an arena of beliefs, they really don’t know where they stand.” 

After Andrew Stigen finished his enlistment, Christy Stigen was stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base and the couple moved to Cheyenne, where they decided to stay. After the military, both decided to use their experiences to help veterans. Andrew Stigen manages contracts for Veterans Affairs, and Christy Stigen processes claims for the Veterans Benefits Administration, a division of the VA.

They have a 3-year-old daughter and a son on the way.

“Joining the military was the best thing I ever did,” Andrew Stigen said. “I’m not going to encourage or discourage my kids from serving, but if they come to that decision on their own, I’m certainly going to paint in the best light.”

No matter the era or branch of service, Reiner said one thing binds all veterans together and drives them long after their time in the military is done.

“At some point, every veteran raised their right hand and swore to protect the Constitution,” he said. “That has no expiration date.”

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

in News/Transportation
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.”

Zwonitzer: Time for Legislature to study gas tax increase

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It is time for the state to study a possible increase in gasoline taxes, according to the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said the proposed 3-cent per gallon tax increase approved by the Revenue Committee in July should definitely be reviewed by the Legislature when it meets in 2020.

“The last actual tax that the Legislature has increased, the only tax in my 15 years, has been the gas tax,” he said. “And it’s probably time again.”

The 3-cent increase would boost Wyoming’s total tax on gasoline to 27 cents per gallon and raise an additional $20 million per year. Under the proposal forwarded to the Legislature by the Revenue Committee, $13.5 million of that would go to the state Department of Transportation to build and maintain roads, while $6.5 million would be split between city and county governments.

Zwonitzer said the increase, which would leave Wyoming’s total gas taxes among the lowest in the region, would help offset some of the Department of Transportation’s deferred maintenance costs.

“But with hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance needed, the 3 cents is really just kind of a chip in the bucket,” he said.

The state last increased gasoline taxes in 2014, adding 10 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline.

Cassie Craven, of the Wyoming Liberty Group, said she wondered what the money raised by the last increase had been used for.

“I’m wondering where that money went,” he said. “We heard back then we wouldn’t feel it at the pumps and gas prices don’t seem to indicate that. So where did the money go?”

The Wyoming Taxpayers Association, Wyoming Truckers Association and Petroleum Marketers Association have all said their members would support the increase as long as the extra tax is not tied to inflation.

The Wyoming Farm Bureau is on record as opposing the tax because of the expenses it would add to farming operations.

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
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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 increases safety message funding as highway fatalities skyrocket

in News/Transportation
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Department of Transportation spends millions to inform the public about safe driving practices, but the death toll continues to rise on Wyoming’s highways.

Sixty-two people have died on Wyoming highways since the beginning of the year, nearly double the amount of fatalities recorded by this time in 2018 and 2017 and more than triple the number of highway fatalities by this date in 2016, according to the Wyoming Highway Patrol website. Of the 62 fatalities in 2019, 29 are listed as resulting from a failure to wear seatbelts.

The increase is occurring even as the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s funding for public education is growing.But the effort to increase safety awareness is a long-term job, said WYDOT spokesman Doug McGee.

“What we’re talking about is behavioral change,” he said. “It takes years and years to take hold, and more time to measure.”

Highway fatalities fluctuate widely from year to year. In 2014, the Wyoming Highway Patrol reported 46 fatalities by May 16. That number dropped to 17 by May 16, 2016, the patrol website states, compared to this year’s figure of 62. McGee said his department has incrementally increased funding for safety messaging and public education since 2016 to encourage Wyoming drivers to be more safe on the road.

“The money comes from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) — it’s all federal funds,” McGee explained. “The (Wyoming) Highway Safety Office entertains grants from all sorts of places, and the funds received are designated (for) information and education. They can’t be spent anywhere else.”

In 2016, WYDOT requested about $1.3 million from NHTSA, increasing the request by a couple hundred thousand dollars each following year. The department could receive as much as $2 million from NHTSA in 2019, McGee said.

“That money goes to WYDOT groups and sub-recipients such as the Governor’s Council on Impaired Driving and the Wyoming Seatbelt Coalition,” he added. 

Once received, the funding is used to purchase airtime on local radio and TV stations, newspaper and magazine ads and banners at sporting events — all with the intent of pushing the message of safety while driving.

“We’re in a lot of community college campuses and at (the University of Wyoming), because that is very much our target audience,” McGee said. “Sporting events are a big one, too. We sponsor media at baseball games, football and rodeo events.”

WYDOT regularly uses traditional media — newspapers, TV and radio — to spread its message, but as the world races toward the digital era, the department is keeping pace.

“One of the areas we’re increasing our focus on is the digital platforms,” McGee explained. “What the digital platform provides is the opportunity to be more targeted in our message. We can reach a specific demographic more effectively than we can with say a newspaper ad.”

The predominant message is buckle up, WYDOT spokeswoman Aimee Inama said.

“We’ve had the seat belt campaign for numerous years,” she said. “But we don’t have an exact date when it started.”

Impaired driving is also high on the list, but McGee said the fastest growing area of concern is distracted driving.

“The gross of distracted driving as an issue has grown dramatically,” he explained. 

In an effort to reduce road distractions, WYDOT started purchasing digital ads that target phone users in hopes the message will remind them not use their devices while driving.

While advertising does comprise a large portion of the NHTSA funds, McGee said the money is also put toward public education events such as May Mobilization, a nationwide effort to increase seat belt usage.

WYDOT also sets up booths at public gatherings such as the Wyoming State Fair and Cheyenne Frontier Days and sends staff to educate children about safe driving in classrooms around the state.

“We recently started one particularly interesting campaign in some high schools,” McGee said. “We reach out to the school staff to identify some of the influencers among the kids, then we get them together and take photos for banners and posters with safe driving messages on them.”

The program has seen some success with teachers and parents reporting the students respond well to the posters, and in some cases, put them up at home, he said.

WYDOT crews work to clear Snowy Range Road

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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.”

Wyoming’s jets cost state $1 million in 2018

in Government spending/News/Transportation
Wyoming’s jets cost state $1 million in 2018
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

With 99 municipalities spread far and wide across Wyoming’s approximately 98,000 square miles, transportation can be time consuming for state employees and elected officials.

However, some disagree on whether the best way to meet those travel needs is to keep the two state jets sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Wyoming Air Force.”

In 2002, the state purchased two Cessna Citation Encores, twin-engine transport jets, to reduce the time its employees and officials spent on the road, said Brian Olsen, administrator of the Wyoming Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division.

Not everyone, however, agrees the jets are the most efficient form of transportation.

Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, said he has added an amendment to the state’s budget bill to sell one of the jets every year since he was elected in 2017. But, so far, the amendment has failed.

“I think they’re an example of government extravagance,” Gray said. “There’s no reason we should have this many jets.”

Olsen disagreed. By owning two jets, he said the state could ensure one plane is available whenever needed.

“When it comes to maintenance, one plane is no plane,” Olsen explained.

According to Wyoming’s checkbook, WYDOT spent about $494,700 on aircraft maintenance with Cessna Aircraft Company in 2018. Olsen said $464,000 of that total was spent on maintaining the jets. The state also owns a Cessna 208, a single-engine turbo prop used to photographically survey road conditions, he said.

WYDOT Director and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. K. Luke Reiner said two jets is optimal.

“We have one jet going into maintenance in June,” Reiner said. “Having two planes does provide a certain sense of redundancy. Also, there’s use for two aircraft … in terms of the ability for elected leaders and agencies to fulfill their responsibilities to the state and the residents.”

Regardless of whether flying is more efficient, government air service stymies private enterprise, said Kevin Lewis, a researcher for Equality State Taxpayers Association.

“People who fly in Wyoming make up a market for air travel,” Lewis said. “Right now, the government sector is removed from that market. We’re talking about a business that lives and dies on slim margins.”

By selling the jets, he suggested the state could create an environment for private intra-state air travel to expand.

“Wyoming is never going to grow itself if your main competitor is the government,” Lewis added.

Cost efficiency

Olsen said WYDOT researched the possibility of booking flights with private charters, but determined owning and maintaining its own fleet was about 44 percent more cost effective.

WYDOT also looked into fractional aircraft, the practice of sharing aircraft ownership, maintenance and operation costs with multiple owners, and determined fractional ownership would be 32 percent more expensive than owning the jets solely.

In regards to employee travel, Olsen said WYDOT studies reported flying employees across the state was 14 percent more cost efficient than paying them to drive.

“We looked at a couple salary levels, but mostly around the $100,000-a-year mark,” he explained. “But those studies don’t take into consideration the cost of motels or opportunity costs.”

Employees are rendered somewhat ineffective while driving, because the time they spend on the road — even when carpooling — is not conducive to a productive work environment, he added.

As stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, Reiner said he believed the jets were the most fiscally responsible travel option for state employees and elected officials.

“I think these aircraft are a really good use of resources for our state,” he said.

Between bulk jet fuel purchases of about $185,000, $464,000 in maintenance costs and approximately $327,000 in pilot’s salaries, Wyoming spent about $1 million on traveling via the two jets in 2018.

Despite WYDOT’s efficiency report, Gray said he would still like Legislature to review the possibility of reducing the state’s air fleet by one jet.

“When I’ve done town halls, I’ve consistently heard the jets are a problem,” he said. “We’re going to continue trying the amendment.”

Reiner said he doesn’t believe the state needs more than two jets, but the state should maintain its current fleet.

“The planes are a tremendous asset for our government,” he said. “The bottom line is they help us accomplish our mission.”

Wyoming’s Air Fleet By the Numbers

  • Aircraft: 2-Cessna twin-engine passenger jets, 1-Cessna single-engine turbo prop survey plane
  • Viable landing strips across Wyoming: 34
  • Maintenance cost for 2018: About $464,000
  • Fuel cost for 2018: About $185,000
  • Annual pilot salaries combined: About $327,000
  • Transport jet flights in 2018: 663, carrying a total 2,213 passengers

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

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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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