Interstate 80

A semi trailer blew over in December on Interstate 80 west of Laramie.

Wyoming Department of Transportation

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.

But with a potential influx of federal dollars for infrastructure projects in coming years, Wyoming is making sure it starts the conversation about how to address the project now.

Consultants presented a report to the Wyoming Transportation Commission on Thursday that outlines the beginnings of a master plan for the I-80 corridor across the entire southern portion of the state.

“It’s really to begin the conversation about this level of project,” said Bill Panos, Wyoming Department of Transportation director.

Any proposal for a major redevelopment of I-80 is going to be in the range of hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, Panos said. But he said the increase in traffic volumes in the corridor over the next 10 years is going to be significant.

Mark Wingate, WYDOT systems planning engineer, said the state observed around 4 percent increases in traffic counts between 2008 and 2009. And while that number has come down in recent years – to around 2 percent increases annually – there’s been a higher rate of growth in commercial truck traffic, which causes more damage that necessitates expensive repairs, said Nicholas Amrhein, who is working the financial side of the master plan for consulting firm WSP USA.

Trucks already account for about half of all I-80 traffic, said Laycee Kolkman, I-80 master plan project manager for consulting firm HDR. For all the traffic on the corridor, she said around 80 percent is just passing through the state.

Panos said Wyoming doesn’t have the money to do a repair job that could breach a price tag in the billions. Because of the high volume of travelers only passing through the state and commercial traffic, however, the federal government has a stake in optimizing the operation of Wyoming’s I-80 corridor as a “strategic national facility,” he said.

The study is a critical first step in figuring out how to utilize federal grants and cost-share agreements, as well as taking advantage of a financing method Panos said Wyoming hasn’t used for road projects in its history – borrowing.

“We went back through several times during this last year in this work we’ve done with Congress, the president and the treasurer; we looked back at the entire record of the state, and we’ve never borrowed to build a road,” he said. “However, one of the options that are here that could be added to this list is the idea of transportation infrastructure bonds. Something where there’s bonding on some level that occurs, and it may be in some combination with grants, with a bond for match or something like that. But I don’t want to leave that off, because it’s a very normal and very regularly used way other states have been and are doing it.”

It’s telling of the economic times in Wyoming that Panos said, “We simply don’t have that energy revenue that’s flowing in to keep up.” Since 2016, Wyoming agencies have been cut across the board following a downturn in energy prices.

Wyoming has never had a project of the magnitude being considered in the I-80 master plan, so Panos said it’s important to keep options open for the state Legislature and administration in Washington, D.C., to consider.

One of President Donald Trump’s signature campaign promises last year was a massive federal investment in infrastructure. Though Panos said it’s hard to tell where that initiative is going in Trump’s first year, he said he expects a significant influx of funding in some form from Congress, the administration or both. Considering that, he said having a plan in place for how to use those funds is prudent.

“However that turns out, Wyoming is ready,” Panos said. “That’s really it – a preparedness on the part of our state to work with our federal partners, the Legislature and the administration to be able to be ready and be prepared for however this turns out. We’re using our best judgment to make those determinations.”

Major considerations in the project include:

Adding passing lanes in areas where steep grades create congestion or incorporating a third lane across the entire corridor in both directions;

redesigning the Interstate 25 and I-80 interchange to utilize flyovers;

incorporating additional truck parking locations to accommodate frequent winter closures;

adding to the intelligent transportation system, which includes the dynamic message boards above the interstate and variable speed limit signs.

Additionally, the study is looking at implementing tolls along the corridor and what the benefit would be versus the cost of travelers diverting to toll-free paths. The preliminary report includes analysis of the possibility of 10- and 25-cent per mile tolls.

Tolling was previously discussed but rejected by the Wyoming Legislature, but Panos said it’s important simply to provide information to elected officials about options for funding construction, operation and maintenance of the roadway.

The timeline for presenting the study to Wyoming lawmakers is tight, with a finalized version expected in December, Kolkman said.

The Wyoming Legislature rejected a bill in 2017 that would have appropriated $300,000 for the study, leaving WYDOT to foot the bill at a cost of $514,000.

Panos said the cost is similar to the price tag of other past studies. The report presented Monday was the first phase of a two-part study.

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