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Interstate 80

Traffic flows along Interstate 80 in April 2015 in Laramie County. State officials want to study the possibility of toll lanes on the interstate.

DOUGLAS—The Wyoming Department of Transportation is embarking on a yearlong study of ways to raise revenue to improve safety on Interstate 80, including the possibility of toll lanes, the agency’s director told lawmakers this week.

About 13,000 vehicles traverse I-80 in Wyoming a day, including a number of long-haul trucks. That number is expected to increase to 25,000 in 20 years.

In Wyoming, the interstate is mostly two lanes in each direction. Parts of the interstate reach elevations of nearly 9,000 feet and snowstorms are common, sometimes causing deadly crashes or shutting down the roadway for days, WYDOT Director Bill Panos told members of the Joint Transpiration, Highways and Military Affairs Committee, which met at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy.

At the same time, federal and state transportation money has been limited, which poses a challenge if WYDOT were to make dramatic improvements to the interstate, Panos and other WYDOT officials testified to the committee.

However, President Donald Trump and members of Congress are discussing a number of infrastructure initiatives. As a result of the WYDOT study, state officials will be able to identify problems with I-80 and be prepared to make the case for why Wyoming needs federal grant money, he said.

The study “includes not just the issue of financing the operation but looking at safety and the general operations,” he said.

Since 2009, lawmakers have discussed building a third lane across the roughly 400-mile stretch of interstate that passes through Wyoming. But the proposal fell flat before the full Wyoming Legislature four times. During its most recent session, the Legislature rejected a bill that required a similar study to the one WYDOT is now doing. The Legislature’s study was to cost $300,000.

Panos said his department’s $500,000 study is different than the one proposed in the Legislature, since it goes beyond tolling.

The larger cost is in part because the department wants to complete it during the first half of 2018, he said.

More options

There are options beyond tolling to raise money for safety measures on I-80. They include bonding, federal grants and increasing registrations and fees that truckers pay, Panos said.

“As you know I-80 is probably the most active and largest transportation asset we have in the state right now,” Panos said. “It is used as a significant thoroughfare for freight between the West Coast and East Coast of the United States.”

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Although Panos continued to emphasize that the study was broader than toll roads, tolling was on the minds of most people who testified about the issue.

Sheila Foertsch, managing director of the Wyoming Trucking Association, said her group opposes the construction of a new lane on the interstate for tolling.

The Trucking Association, along with the Wyoming Contractors Association is on a steering committee with WYDOT staff to oversee the study.

She said truckers pay registration and fuel taxes to help fund the nation’s highway system.

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And Wyoming receives some of the money, even if a trucking company is headquartered in another state, since registration and fuel tax laws require that revenue is sent to states where the truckers drive, she said.

“We’re very sensitive to how tolling takes place, the price of that tolling,” she said.

Sen. Curt Meier, a LaGrange Republican and a committee chairman, calculated some tax numbers and challenged Foertsch’s assertion that truckers pay more for the state’s roads than they use.

“You’re saying you’re paying enough,” he said. “Frankly, I’m saying you’re not. And I’ll just leave it at that.”

Meier later asked the Legislature’s nonpartisan staff for more data on revenue truckers pay.

Sheridan County resident Bryan Miller testified to the committee that he travels for work and is generally opposed to toll roads. Although there are some well-maintained toll roads in the Denver area, most of the toll roads are located in the eastern U.S. and they’re not in good shape, he said.

“They’re expensive and the maintenance and everything that’s done is just not as good,” Miller said. “I think the Wyoming DOT does a good job.”

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Star-Tribune reporter Laura Hancock covers politics and the Wyoming Legislature.

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