Wyoming lawmakers want to know why some state roads have slower speed limits than what’s legally allowed.
By Sept. 1, the Wyoming Department of Transportation will provide answers.
Legislators are especially miffed about Wyoming Highway 34 through Sybille Canyon, Togwotee Pass and U.S. 14/16/20 between Cody and Yellowstone’s East Gate – all roads that were reconstructed and reopened with slower speeds than before reconstruction.
In the supplemental budget bill passed in February, the Legislature ordered WYDOT to admit if it lowers speed limits to curry favor or comply with Washington when obtaining permission for road reconstruction on federal lands during the environmental review process. WYDOT must also describe other reasons for slower speeds.
It may not be only lawmakers who crave speed.
Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, thinks average Wyomingites want to drive fast, too.
“As fast as the road will handle, of course,” said Von Flatern, co-chairman of the Joint Transportation Interim Committee, which will hear the WYDOT report. “Why would you want to go any slower? We have a lot of distances that need to be covered with nothing in between, traffic-wise.”
“In the Legislature, we call that windshield time,” said Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, describing the drive through “long distances of nothing.”
Coe was one of the lawmakers who requested the WYDOT presentation. He berated the slower speeds on Togwotee Pass, formerly 65 mph and now 55 mph, and on the road between Cody and Yellowstone, formerly 65 mph and now 50.
Togwotee Pass is on U.S. Forest Service land, WYDOT chief engineer Delbert McOmie said.
Under federal law, WYDOT had to take input from environmental groups and state and federal agencies, such as the Sierra Club, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, McOmie said.
Many of the agencies and groups wanted a slower speed, he said.
The pass’s curves and hills also warranted a 55 mph speed.
“Even though the road looks flatter and wider than it was before — and it is — from a design standpoint, the new design standards, which have improved over the years, would have required an even wider, flatter roadway” to go faster, McOmie said.
Outside of Cody, the highway speeds were reduced because of wildlife. Inside Yellowstone National Park, the speed limit is 45 mph.
“This was a good way to get people accustomed to slowing down,” said Bob Bonds, WYDOT environmental coordinator, who insisted the federal government cannot force WYDOT to set a speed limit during environmental review.
House Majority Floor Leader Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, is irritated by the 55 mph speed limit in Sybille Canyon, which used to be 65. Brown sponsored two bills limiting WYDOT’s ability to decrease speeds. After both died in committees, Brown helped craft the budget bill’s requirement for the WYDOT report .
“They spend incredible amounts of money and then come out with a speed limit that just seems completely out of sync with the quality of highway they’re building,” Brown said of WYDOT.
Wetlands, Game and Fish research station pastures and private property concerns led WYDOT to lower the speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph, said Joel Meena, WYDOT traffic engineer.
The Federal Highway Administration paid for a chunk of the project and required WYDOT meet with stakeholders, he said.