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Govt-and-politics
HIGHWAY SAFETY
I-80 master plan seeks improved winter safety, proposes new funding options

Interstate 80 has a lot of two things: heavy trucks and crashes. Trucks comprise half the traffic on Wyoming’s primary east-west transit corridor and are involved in roughly 40 percent of the 1,500 crashes that take place on the route every year.

“We’ve had a number of high profile crashes involving multiple vehicles (in recent years),” said transportation department spokeswoman Aimee Inama.

Over half of the crashes on Wyoming’s three interstates take place on I-80 and a new master plan for the freeway, unveiled last week, calls for a series of safety improvements in addition to several other changes.

The draft master plan calls for creating or extending third lanes used by freight trucks ascending steep sections of the freeway as well as additional parking areas where truck drivers can wait out storms.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation also wants to roll out new technology, including variable speed limit signs that use digital screens and change driving speeds depending on travel conditions and sensors that can communicate crashes and other road hazards to self-driving cars.

The proposed improvements vary in cost and importance, and WYDOT chief engineer Gregg Fredrick said that no action will be taken directly as a result of the study. A final version of the plan is expected in early January.

“What it’ll do is be a foundation for identifying a menu of projects,” Fredrick said. Some of those items can be handled internally by department employees while others will require money from the Legislature or federal grants.

But Fredrick said WYDOT is not planning on requesting additional state funding during the legislative session that begins in February. The department has already applied for federal funds for several projects, including the truck parking areas, he said.

Other major highlights of the master plan include the reconstruction of interchanges in Rock Springs and Cheyenne. The interstate runs from the Utah border in the southwest corner of the state through Evanston, Rock Springs, Rawlins, Laramie and Cheyenne before entering Nebraska at Pine Bluffs.

I-80 corridor project has huge price tag

CHEYENNE – Wyoming’s 400-mile Interstate 80 corridor is going to see more traffic in coming years, and making sure its facilities are accommodating and safe is going to come at a high cost.

The report identified a lack of funding as a major impediment to I-80 improvements, noting that the transportation department’s annual funding has largely declined since 2010 and stating the construction costs are starting to exceed WYDOT’s appropriation. The drop in money is a result of declining federal dollars and a fall in mineral royalties and fuel tax revenue, the report states.

The department has an annual budget of roughly $600 million, about half of which comes from the federal government. The master plan’s executive summary provides several wide-ranging options for increasing revenue including:

  • Charging higher vehicle registration fees to newer and heavier vehicles;
  • indexing the fuel tax;
  • increasing operators fee and the cost of special permits;
  • increasing the sales tax by 0.2 percent;
  • a 4 percent increase in the fuel tax;
  • a 5 percent increase in the lodging tax;
  • a 5 percent increase in alcohol and tobacco taxes;
  • increasing property tax by 5 percent and allocating it for transportation;
  • implementing a cap and trade system;
  • creating a mileage-based fee for drivers.

The plan also discusses whether to implement a toll on the interstate ranging from 10 cents per mile for trucks and 1 cent per mile for cars to 25 cents per mile for trucks and 2.5 cents per mile for cars.

Such tolls could generate up to $332 million per year, according to the report, which would be sufficient to cover all I-80 maintenance costs but might also encourage drivers, especially long-haul truckers, to use alternate toll-free routes.

Before any tolling could be implemented the Legislature would have to create a law allowing it and Wyoming would need to qualify for one of two federal programs allowing fees to be charged on interstate highways.

Such a system has been ardently opposed by the trucking industry in Wyoming.

Otherwise, Fredrick said the state has large discretion over how to manage or potentially expand I-80, including whether to build additional lanes or change signage, so long as any work conforms to federal safety guidelines.

The federal government pays roughly 90 percent of interstate highway maintenance and operations costs in the state, but the amount given to Wyoming each year is based on a set formula. If WYDOT wanted to expand I-80 it would need to either use state dollars, reallocate the existing federal funds it received or apply for special grants.

Expanding I-80 to a total of six lanes would cost between $1.9 billion and $4.1 billion.

The plan was presented to the Legislature’s joint transportation committee in Thermopolis last week.


State-and-regional
Cornea transplant program helps heal physical and emotional wounds

Jake Power’s most distinguishing feature was his bright blue eyes.

“It’s the first thing anyone noticed about him,” said Ashley Power, his mother, who described the boy’s eyes as a clear, sky blue.

The 8-year-old boy from Jordan died in an accident in 2013. Afterward, Ashley was approached by doctors at the hospital asking if she would donate his corneas. She said yes.

“It really wasn’t a decision. I didn’t even have to think about it,” she said. “He was the most giving kid. It’s what he would have wanted to do.”

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff 

Ashley Power shows a sketch of her son Jacob, who died at the age of 8, in 2013.

It seemed particularly appropriate to Ashley and those who loved him that Jake’s most distinguishing physical feature would be what lived on after his death.

“I’m glad we decided to donate his corneas,” she said.

Donation

Before Jake’s accident, Ashley had never given the practice of organ donation a thought. She certainly wasn’t aware that corneas could be donated. That’s not uncommon, said John Martinez, an area representative for SightLife, a global nonprofit that specializes in corneal transplants.

The cornea is the transparent tissue that covers the front of the eye, sitting over the iris and pupil. Damage to the cornea or disease that causes it to inflame or become cloudy can result in varying degrees of blindness. A cornea transplant is often the only way to treat damaged or diseased corneas and restore sight.

Cornea transplants are a relatively new development in the world of organ transplantation. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s Byron Smith, with the Eye Clinic Surgicenter in Billings, was a young eye surgeon completing his residency at Trinity Lutheran Hospital in Kansas City.

At the time, if a patient needed a new cornea, it was the doctor who hustled to find one and perform the transplant. There was no organized system of recovering corneas from those who had died and then connecting them with the patients who needed them.

“So I would take it upon myself,” Smith said.

Smith took every cornea transplant procedure he could; no specific training for cornea transplantation existed, he said.

“It took me nearly 10 years to learn,” he said. Smith figures during the past 30 years he’s performed between 1,500 and 2,000 cornea transplants.

In the early days, the corneas themselves deteriorated quickly. Doctors usually had 12 hours to transplant the cornea after it had been recovered, Smith said.

That changed in the early 1990s. A medical company created a liquid solution in which doctors could store the corneas, preserving them for up to 10 days, Smith said. The development allowed groups like SightLife to expand their operations.

These days, SightLife has trained representatives that work closely with hospitals and meet with grieving families to discuss the option of donating corneas. The group also has a stable of technicians specially trained to work with hospitals and morgues to recover the corneas.

It’s one of the ways cornea recovery and transplants are unique. The recovery of all other organs from the body requires a surgeon.

Improving sight

In 1984, Herman Corletto was a toddler in Honduras walking through a crowded marketplace with his family on Christmas Eve. He’s not sure how it happened, but he and his sister were walking through a fireworks stand when the whole place erupted in sparks and flame.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff 

Cornea transplant recipient Herman Corletto lives and works in Cody, Wyo.

He was surrounded by exploding fireworks as the stand burned. He ended up on the ground, and his father found him by recognizing his shoes. When he pulled his son out, Corletto had burns all over his hands and face. His eyes were badly damaged.

“I should probably be blind,” he said.

His father was a neurosurgeon and had a colleague in Colombia who was pioneering cornea transplantation. The family flew down and stayed in the country while they waited for the operation. Both eyes needed cornea transplants, but it was his left eye that was most damaged.

Those early surgeries were successful at the time, but were rudimentary. For most of Corletto’s childhood he wore “Coke bottle glasses” to see. He moved to New Orleans as a teenager and then to Cody, Wyoming, four years ago, after completing college. Two years ago, he received a third cornea transplant on his left eye.

“A third transplant is it,” he said. “You don’t really go for a fourth.”

Cornea transplants change the shape of the eyeball; they’re literally sewn on, requiring 24 tiny sutures. After a third transplant, the eye has changed shape enough that the cornea no longer fits.

Corletto is confident he won’t need anymore. His sight is the best its ever been and it’s allowed him to work in his chosen field. Corletto is a manufacturing engineer at Cody Laboratories.

As a child he wasn’t really aware that his eye operations — that a cornea transplant — meant someone had died so that he could have the procedure that improved his sight. Now, it’s something he thinks about all the time.

“You have a tiny piece of another person with you,” he said. “It weighs on you.”

Connecting

SightLife arranged Corletto’s more recent cornea transplant. The group offers to anonymously connect the donors’ families and the recipients, usually through notes or letters that they exchange. It was something Corletto wanted to do, but it took him a while before he found he could do it.

His last transplant came from an Iraqi war veteran who, after he had returned home, was killed in a carjacking.

“It took a while, but I finally sat down and wrote a letter,” he said.

He heard from the family. They wrote to Corletto, explaining that donating their son’s corneas had brought them comfort as they worked through their grief.

Being able to correspond has helped Corletto process it all emotionally.

“It’s a feeling of just being grateful,” he said. “More than anything I feel grateful.”

Ashley Power knows she’ll write those letters when she’s ready.

“There’s so many things to be thankful for, to be grateful for,” she said.

Jake was a helper. His classroom teachers would always comment about it and Ashley saw it all the time at home. Once, when they were at a rodeo in town, Jake noticed a stadium employee cleaning up the garbage dropped by the spectators.

Jake walked over and asked if he could help her clean up.

“He was sweet,” she said. “He was so sweet.”

After the accident, Jake’s corneas were given to a 19-year-old and a 40-year-old. Ashley thinks about them a lot. She wonders what their lives are like and how they’ve changed because of the donation of Jake’s corneas. She likes the notion that their lives are better now because of her son.

“He still helping people,” she said. “There’s a still a piece of him alive.”


State-and-regional
AP
Interior head says Patagonia claim about public land 'a lie'

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday accused outdoor retailer Patagonia of lying when it said that President Donald Trump “stole your land” by shrinking two national monuments in Utah by some 2 million acres.

An angry Zinke called the claim — made in large type on the company’s home page — “nefarious, false and a lie.”

Zinke told reporters the land targeted by Trump remains protected because it is still under federal control.

“I understand fundraising for these special interest groups,” Zinke said. “I think it’s shameful and appalling that they would blatantly lie in order to gain money in their coffers.”

Patagonia replaced its usual home page Monday night with a stark message declaring, “The President Stole Your Land.” The message called Trump’s actions to shrink Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments “illegal” and the largest elimination of protected land in American history.

Outdoor retailer REI also criticized Trump but in less harsh language.

Zinke took a defiant tone in a conference call with reporters, saying, “I don’t yield to pressure, only higher principle. And sound public policy is not based on threats of lawsuits, it’s doing what’s right.”

Patagonia has “always viewed public lands as our special interest,” said company spokeswoman Corley Kenna. “And it’s odd that Ryan Zinke has no problem with special interests when they’re paying for his private jets. We have been fighting for these lands for decades, so that hunters, fishers, hikers and everyone else can use them and help us protect them.”

Patagonia is expected to file a lawsuit challenging the Bears Ears decision as soon as Wednesday. The company has joined with REI and other outdoor recreation companies in leading a push to move the industry’s lucrative trade show from Salt Lake City to Denver after two decades in Utah. The move was a high-profile protest over Utah leaders’ insistence on getting the Bears Ears designation rescinded and trying to take more control of federal lands.

Zinke argued that Bears Ears is still larger than Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks combined even after being downsized to about 202,000 acres (315 square miles) while Grand Staircase-Escalante retains about 1 million acres (about 1,500 square miles.)

Environmental and conservation groups and a coalition of tribes filed lawsuits Monday that ensure Trump’s announcement is far from the final word in the yearslong battle over public lands in Utah and other Western states. The court cases are likely to drag on for years.

A coalition of the Hopi, Ute Indian, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni tribes and Navajo Nation sued late Monday to challenge the Bears Ears reduction, which cuts monument status for the rugged land in southeastern Utah by about 85 percent. Bears Ears features thousands of Native American artifacts, including ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.

The tribes argue that federal law only gives presidents the ability to create a national monument, not the ability to downsize one.

Two lawsuits also have been filed to try to block the Grand Staircase decision, which cuts the monument nearly in half. Grand Staircase contains scenic cliffs, canyons, waterfalls and arches — and one of the nation’s largest known coal reserves.

The two monuments were created by Democrats Barack Obama and Bill Clinton under a century-old law that allows presidents to protect sites considered historically, geographically or culturally important.

Trump acted on a recommendation by Zinke, who also has urged that two other large national monuments in the West be reduced in size, potentially opening up thousands of acres of land revered for natural beauty and historical significance to mining, logging and other development.

The interior secretary’s plan would scale back Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, in addition to the two Utah sites.

Zinke said Tuesday he would focus changes in Gold Butte on the site’s water districts. Gold Butte protects nearly 300,000 acres of desert landscapes featuring rock art, sandstone towers and wildlife habitat for the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise and other species.

Zinke declined to specify how many acres he wants to remove from monument status, stressing that the administration is working with Nevada’s governor and congressional delegation to find a solution.

Similarly, Zinke declined specifics on Cascade-Siskiyou, which protects about 113,000 acres in an area where three mountain ranges converge. Changes will center on recent expansion of the site, which was first created by Clinton in 2000. Much of the additional land is on private property, while some is on land previously designated for timber production, Zinke said.

Zinke also has recommended allowing logging at a newly designated monument in Maine and urges more grazing, hunting and fishing at two sites in New Mexico. He also calls for a new assessment of border-safety risks at a monument in southern New Mexico.


Govt-and-politics
Enzi maintains call for Moore to drop out of race, Barrasso says voters will decide

As Republican leaders come to grips with the possibility that Roy Moore will win an Alabama senate seat next Tuesday despite repeated allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against teenagers, Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso says its now up to the voters to decide.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Enzi stands by his earlier statement that Moore should drop out.

Last month, Barrasso and Enzi both said that Moore should drop out of the race following a series of sexual misconduct allegations by women who said that Moore had dated or sexually assaulted them when they were teenagers and he was a 30-something district attorney. Moore has denied the allegations.

“These are disturbing and credible accusations,” Barrasso said. “I believe Judge Moore should step aside immediately. If he doesn’t, it’s ultimately up to the people of Alabama to decide who they want to represent them in the U.S. Senate.”

That position was the consensus among most top Republicans following the allegations against Moore. But Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who once called on Moore to get out of the race, changed his rhetoric over the weekend to say that it was Alabama voters who should decide. As the fourth-ranking Senate Republican, Barrasso is a close ally of McConnell’s, and on Tuesday, spokeswoman Laura Mengelkamp declined to say whether Barrasso still believed Moore should drop out.

“Senator Barrasso stated earlier that he would rather Judge Moore step aside so that another Republican could run and win,” Mengelkamp said in an email. “That didn’t happen. Voters in Alabama will vote to decide.”

On Monday, President Donald Trump formally endorsed Moore, and the Republican National Committee quickly followed suit, announcing it was returning at least some of the support it had pulled last month. Trump has also been accused of sexual assault by several women, but has denied the allegations.

In contrast, Enzi is standing by his initial comments, which said the allegations against Moore were “serious and disturbing” and called on the candidate to leave the race.

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“Senator Enzi stands by his statement,” spokesman Max D’Onofrio said in an email Tuesday.

Barrasso, who is running for reelection next year, has been attacked by some Trump supporters for being too close to establishment Republicans and not supportive enough of the president’s agenda. While Barrasso’s stance on Moore aligns him with McConnell, it also moves him toward Trump’s position and that of Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon, a strong Moore backer who is said to be recruiting candidates to challenge Barrasso in the GOP primary.

McConnell appeared to hedge once again on Tuesday afternoon, saying that there had been “no change of heart” on Moore and that he would immediately initiate an ethics investigation if Moore is elected.

Tightening race

The special election is next Tuesday for the seat once held by Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general. Although the polls have showed a narrowing contest with Democrat Doug Jones, Alabama is a strongly Republican state, and Democrats generally have little chance there.

Trump telephoned Moore on Monday to offer encouragement as well as support and also argued in a pair of tweets that Moore’s vote was badly needed to push the president’s policies forward. Weeks ago, when accusations of sexual misconduct with teenagers first surfaced, Trump’s spokesman had said the president believed Moore would “do the right thing and step aside” if the allegations were true.

Two women have accused Moore of sexually assaulting or molesting them decades ago, when they were 14 and 16 and he was a deputy district attorney in his 30s. At least five other women have said he pursued romantic relationships with them around the same time, when they were 16 to 18.

Publicly and privately, GOP leaders described the allegations against Moore as credible and insisted there were no circumstances under which he should serve in the Senate.

Moore’s campaign was wounded by accusations, but the candidate has denied the allegations, saying “I do not know any of these women. I did not date any of these women I did not engage in any sexual misconduct with anyone.”

After the first allegations emerged, Moore said that he did know some of the women accusing him of sexual misconduct and referred to them as “good girls” but said he did not recall dating any of them.

Jones, the Democrat, sidestepped questions about Trump’s endorsement while suggesting the support of national Republicans like McConnell could do more harm than good in Alabama. A former federal prosecutor, Jones told supporters Tuesday that he had done his part to ensure that “men who hurt little girls should go to jail and not the United States Senate.”

Barrasso did not respond to a question asking whether he would rather serve in the Senate with Jones or Moore.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.