By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature will take another crack at the idea of tolling Interstate 80 as a way to help fund improvements and maintenance along the more than 400 miles of road.
The Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee has made studying tolling I-80 its second highest priority during this interim session. As part of that work, the committee will look at updating studies conducted in 2008 and 2009 by the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
Transportation committee co-chairman Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, has been a major proponent of the idea of tolling I-80. He said by placing a toll on out-of-state drivers, it could help not only fund the interstate's maintenance but also make needs safety improvements.
“I’ve always thought it was a great idea right from 2008,” Von Flatern said. “The fact is that 80 percent of the traffic from I-80 neither originates nor stops in this state. So if we were just taxing them, we could do a lot for safety improvements to I-80, which it needs badly.”
One of the big safety improvements discussed in the previous studies was expanding I-80 to three lanes and making the new lane for passenger vehicles only. Von Flatern said expansion, along with things like adding snow fencing and smoothing out existing curves on more dangerous sections of the road, would help keep I-80 open during more of the winter.
“If we had a third lane and restrict it to non-trucks, the cars would have a way of moving forward and getting around trucks,” Von Flatern said.
A third lane would also allow traffic to pass a snow plow with an extra lane of space, which would help with a driver’s visibility, he said.
Part of the mission over this interim is letting WYDOT update the previous studies to see what the costs and benefits could be, and if any of the assumptions made in the studies should be changed.
The 2009 WYDOT study estimated a third-lane project across I-80 would cost about $3.5 billion in 2009 dollars. But that study said the price tag would most likely be around $6 billion between 2015 to 2025, when it was estimated the construction would have begun. The study also estimated Wyoming could take in about $490 million annually from the tolls.
The study estimated the most effective tolls in 2025 dollars would be $198 for trucks and $19.78 for passenger vehicles.
The money raised from tolls would allow the state to spend the $260 million or so it gets from the federal government through the Highway Trust Fund on the other U.S. highways in Wyoming, Von Flatern said. Currently, Wyoming is spending about $100 million just to “fill the potholes” on I-80.
The studies from WYDOT also talked about a consequence of tolling I-80 – the diversion of traffic in order to avoid paying tolls. The study estimated around 40 percent of the out-of-state traffic using the interstate would find alternative routes.
By the time the entire project was finished being built, the study estimated Wyoming would lose $6.3 million in gas taxes and vehicle fees, which would result in about $1.6 million cut from the money currently going to cities and counties. Sales tax would take a hit of about $5.2 million, and an estimated 1,700 jobs would be lost, mostly along the I-80 corridor. The project would create about 4,100 construction-related jobs during the project.
Traffic diversions are a major concern to gas stations along I-80 that depend on out-of-state traffic for their bottom line. Mark Larson, executive vice president of the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association, said members of his group would be hardest hit by the loss of business as cars took different routes to get to their destination.
“Our perspective is that the gas tax is the most direct user-pay system that is out there right now,” Larson said. “We have genuine concerns about what (tolling) would do to the side road traffic.”
Larson said instead of considering tolling, Wyoming should push the federal government to increase the federal gas tax. That tax hasn’t been increased since 1993, when gas was averaging about $1.11 a gallon. He would also be open to an increase in the state gas tax, as long as it didn't make Wyoming uncompetitive with what is being charged in the surrounding states.
Von Flatern said he believed some traffic would be diverted by the tolls, but didn’t think it would be as much as the previous studies have estimated. He wanted any new study to see if the original assumptions would hold up or if they wouldn't be as significant as first estimated.
He also said he didn't think trucks would divert to Interstate 70 in Colorado, which has a lower average speed than I-80, or I-90 to avoid a toll that was less than $200. When the cost of fuel and time is taken into account, it would be more economical for truckers to pay the fee than spend more money to avoid paying it.
Sheila Foertsch, managing director of the Wyoming Trucking Association, said the decision to avoid tolls would come down to more than just the bottom line. Many trucking companies would refuse to pay it on the grounds they think it’s an unfair penalty against a company that is already helping fund the state’s transportation budget.
“Even if the toll is inexpensive, they would prefer to not use the toll. They feel they have already paid for that highway,” Foertsch said.
Even if trucks are not registered in Wyoming or buy diesel in the state, Foertsch said there are two programs that exist now that share those revenues across state lines. So if a truck fueled up in Nebraska but drove 200 miles across Wyoming, Nebraska’s state government would send Wyoming money for the miles traveled on its roads.
While there isn't a new plan for her and her organization to judge, Foertsch said historically they’ve been against tolling existing roads, including I-80.
“We have supported, in the past, fuel tax increases. Fuel tax administration is every inexpensive. And there's a cost to do tolling, even if you're relying on it electronically,” she said. “Previous studies have shown a 35 percent administration fee on every dollar from tolling.”
Von Flatern said he knows the political will might not be there in the Legislature for tolling. But he wants the state to study the issue over the next year and have something to consider during the 2021 session.
If predictions hold true and Wyoming’s population decreases, there will be less and less money for WYDOT to fund even the basic maintenance. And that will mean more and more pressure on the state’s general fund to help WYDOT even keep up with basic maintenance.
“When that finally comes, and there potholes in front of everyone’s home, then we’ll think about (tolling). Which will be 2030, and it will be 2035 before we enact it,” Von Flatern said. “We're wanting to get a little bit more proactive in this case, and trying to say WYDOT is keeping the roads as is, and not improving them at all.
“We need to fund WYDOT in a manner that doesn't have them coming back to the general fund with their hat in hand, asking for more money. And this is one way we can do it.”