Interstate 80 expansion

The Wyoming Department of Transportation will examine the possibility of increasing lanes and adding tolls on Interstate 80, seen here in 2015.

File, Star-Tribune

Are extra lanes and tolls coming to Interstate 80 in southern Wyoming?

That’s a $10 billion question. Or maybe a $6 billion question.

But first it’s a $300,000 question, as the Legislature’s transportation committee learned this week.

Wyoming Department of Transportation’s chief engineer Gregg Fredrick told the committee the main option being considered at the moment is building two new lanes — meaning three lanes running in each direction — and tolling commercial trucks that use those lanes.

“What we are not going to do is toll existing interstate facilities,” Fredrick said.

But before moving ahead with any new construction or tolls, a 2008 feasibility study would need to be updated.

That study explored charging trucks $20 and cars $2 at a toll station between Rawlins and Wamsutter, as well as the possibility of building new truck-only toll lanes.

But times have changed, Fredrick said.

The 2008 study assumed toll booths would need to be manned, whereas now technology allows cameras and sensors to electronically collect tolls.

The levels of traffic, including the number of trucks passing across I-80 each day, has also increased. Construction costs have changed, and inflation has adjusted the actual cost of building new lanes or improving the existing freeway.

Fredrick said that in 2008 the study estimated that $6 billion would be needed to increase lanes across 400 miles of I-80. But Joint Transportation Committee co-chairman Sen. Curt Meier, R-La Grange, speculated the new cost could be over $10 billion.

The goal of implementing tolls would be to help cover the estimated $6.4 billion cost of maintaining the I-80 corridor through 2038, a total that federal funding does not entirely cover.

WYDOT director Bill Panos told the committee there was a good chance that President-elect Donald Trump’s administration would be willing to provide significant funding for an I-80 expansion.

But Panos said that after meeting in Washington, D.C., with Elaine Chao, Trump’s nominee for Transportation Secretary, it was unclear what form that funding would take — something that could potentially jeopardize Wyoming’s ability to complete the project.

“The one thing we saw missing is a sensitivity to rural states,” Panos said.

He said Trump’s infrastructure plans emphasized public-private partnerships and extending loans to build roads, bridges and highways.

But Panos said Wyoming was one of five states that has never borrowed money to build its roads and doesn’t intend to start now.

“If you have a loan program to states... we might be at a disadvantage,” he said.

Chao, who ran the Labor Department from 2001 to 2009, was receptive when he explained Wyoming’s needs.

Panos said “we’re getting there” when it comes to the Trump administration understanding the needs of rural states.

“We won’t have all of the attention, but we won’t have all of the attention on the shores (either),” he said.

Panos said WYDOT was ready to update the 2008 study but requested that the transportation committee direct it to do so either by allocating additional funding or instructing the department to use its existing funds for an update.

Meier said he believed the Trump administration would be a good partner for the state if it goes ahead with an I-80 expansion and urged the committee to support an update to the study.

“We’ve got four years, maybe eight years, of somebody who is going to work with Congress and both sides of the aisle and is really ready to do infrastructure redevelopment,” Meier said. “There’s a possibility you’re going to spend $300,000 and possibly get $10 (billion) to $15 billion back.”

“I want to strike while the iron is hot,” he said.

But the committee was noncommittal and declined to instruct WYDOT to update the study.

Meier said he would present the question to the committee again in January, by which point it will include several new members.

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