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The Interstate-80 Railroad – Time for "Maintenance Fees"

By Bill Sniffin

Probably less than five percent of the traffic on Interstate-80 is by Wyoming residents.

And more importantly, probably less than one thousandth of the total weight of vehicles on I-80 is benefiting Wyoming.

And yet we are watching the spectacle of our legislators and our Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) agonize over how to keep this multi-billion dollar road in good repair.

One idea that keeps coming up is adding tolls.

I prefer to call such charges “maintenance fees.”

A special task force held hearings in seven I-80 cities about installing such charges. WYDOT has produced a wonderful video, which can be accessed on their site at http://dot.state.wy.us.

The projections of travel on this road, which cuts across the lower half of our state from Evanston to Pine Bluffs, continue to rise. More than 12,000 vehicles a day cross it now, over half of which are huge semi-trailer trucks.

Again, very little of this traffic is Wyoming people or even benefiting the people of Wyoming.

Let’s face it, I-80 is not a road.  It’s a railroad disguised as a highway.  Over four decades, it has turned into something entirely different from what it was designed for in the last century. Instead of providing a road for cars, it now is the main freight-hauling route across central United States.

And during a time of declining tax revenues, Wyoming’s leaders are worrying over how to pay for projected repairs to I-80.It would be a pain to have to pay a toll to travel on Interstate 80 but that concept certainly seems to be the only way to finance billions in repairs projected for the road.

But cars, both from Wyoming and out of state, are not causing the damage.  It is out of state trucks that are causing the damage. Big trucks.

So, instead of a toll, charges to travel on that road should be considered a  “maintenance fee.”

One person who knows says that you could drive 4,000 cars over that highway and not cause the same damage as one heavy semi-trailer truck.   John Cox, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT), made that comment.

Thus, cars should pay 1/4,000th of what the toll would be for a big truck.  If a semi-trailer truck’s fee is $100 then a car should be three cents. Sounds fair to me.

I-80 covers 400 miles across Wyoming, which is a pinch point where highways converge.

All those products being produced in Asia arrive on the West Coast on huge freighters and then are hauled cross-country by semi-trucks.

I-80 traffic is now more than 50 percent trucks or 6,000 semi- trailer trucks a day. Over 180,000 trucks per month make that highway scary all year long, but especially in winter.

Because that highway is here and also because it is a national connecting link for Wyoming, too, it is hard to ignore.  It is truly the six billion dollar gorilla when it comes to problems that we would like to have someone else solve.

But, why should Wyoming have to pay to keep this national trail of commerce in good repair?  Why should Wyoming bear the brunt of this expense, when it does not really benefit our citizens? WYDOT has long been crying foul during all this, too. They are in a lose-lose situation.

On the one hand, they are expected to keep our roads safe and in good repair and upgraded.  On the other hand, the state’s federal funds are being cut and the prices for road construction have gone through the roof.

Traffic safety is one of WYDOT’s main concerns. They have added more web cams, snowplows and snow fences.  The governor and legislators have added more patrolmen.  And those huge message boards cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the state has added them all over the Interstate system, too.

The numbers associated with keeping I-80 in good shape are staggering, according to WYDOT’s Cox. He says you could spend Wyoming’s entire highway budget on I-80 and still come up short.

Thus the current conversations about tolls, or what I prefer to call maintenance fees.

Of course, in the end, we do like having I-80 here.  It gives Wyoming a lifeline to the rest of the country and certainly is a major tourism conduit for people from elsewhere who visit here.

But paying for its upkeep and maintenance?  That should be the job of those causing the damage – thus the argument for maintenance fees by big trucks.

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