Interstate 80

Truck drivers head toward Cheyenne in April 2016 in limited visibility on Interstate 80.

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.

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.

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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.

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