Worried about scrambling to find exact change while traveling on the new Interstate-80 toll road that Wyoming lawmakers are considering?
Relax. Even if everything goes perfectly in the exhaustive process of securing federal permission to charge tolls on I-80, the earliest it could happen is 2029.
Previous tolling proposals over the last two decades experienced anything but smooth sailing. While legislators need to find millions of dollars for construction and maintenance of the heavily traveled interstate, I wouldn’t bet much on toll roads being the ultimate solution they approve.
Still, despite the measure’s slim prospects in the legislative session, I think the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee was right to advance a bill to fund drafting a master plan for a toll system on the 400-mile east-west thoroughfare.
The panel’s naysayers on the issue, led by Cheyenne Republicans Sen. Stephan Pappas and Rep. Landon Brown, said they wanted to form a task force to study all ideas to raise I-80 funds.
Sen. Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette), the committee’s co-chairman, correctly pointed out that an I-80 toll system “has been studied to death,” and it’s time to at least get the ball rolling if it’s ever going to happen.
Wyoming Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Shelby Carlson said the state now spends about $60 million annually on I-80 construction and maintenance projects. She said that’s an estimated $41.5 million less per year than the agency needs just to keep the highway in its current condition.
The road, Carlson reminded legislators, isn’t in great shape now. Potholes appear faster than WYDOT can fix them, particularly on the western half of the interstate.
A toll system would allow the department to spend that $60 million per year that now goes toward I-80 projects on other Wyoming highways. That would be a big plus to the state’s entire transportation system.
Since 1998, the Federal Highway Administration has had three slots for states that want to charge tolls on interstate highways. While there has been interest elsewhere, especially in Connecticut and Oregon, no state has ever completed the rigorous federal process and no requests are currently in the pipeline.
John Davis, WYDOT’s management services manager, said the committee’s bill is necessary to let the feds know Wyoming is serious about submitting a proposal. The Legislature kicked the tires on another tolling measure in 2010 but ultimately rejected it.
If lawmakers approve the new bill next year, they would begin to draft a master plan to study the issue. That would cost between $300,000 and $500,000. The plan would go to the Wyoming Transportation Commission in fall 2021 and, if approved, would go back before the Legislature in 2022. At that point legislators could kill it or authorize WYDOT to submit an official federal application.
An application would trigger a three-year review process, including National Environmental Protection Act evaluation of the impact a toll system would have on air quality, elk migration corridors, sage grouse habitat and other wildlife considerations.
The federal review would also include socioeconomic impacts, such as how a toll road would affect businesses along I-80.
In what might seem a bridge too far, the feds would even consider the impacts on the highways that would have to handle the overflow of motorists who decide they don’t want to pay the toll.
Throughout this process, WYDOT would need to keep repairing I-80. If the federal government approves Wyoming’s application, the state could set its toll rates and build its toll infrastructure.
Among the decisions the Legislature would need to make is how many points along the interstate to collect a toll. Davis estimated the infrastructure would cost $12.5 million for a single toll location, and about $30.5 million to set up toll booths every 80 miles.
Several committee members logically noted that since commercial truck traffic causes the most wear-and-tear of I-80 — at least 4,000 times the damage caused by passenger vehicles, according to testimony from WYDOT officials — the state should charge people driving lighter vehicles a much lower toll. There was also talk about rebating the money spent by Wyoming residents driving non-commercial cars and trucks, but no one proposed specifics of what that might entail.
As one might expect, the Wyoming Trucking Association vehemently opposes all toll roads. Sheila Foertsch, the organization’s managing director, claimed the industry already pays more than its fair share to fix I-80 through fuel fees, plus vehicle registration fees that are apportioned to the states based on the total miles truckers travel.
Foertsch added what I consider a red herring. “We’ve had carriers tell us, ‘I won’t pay tolls. I will divert.’” She said the diversion issue is “huge” among her members.
I just don’t see truck companies that need to use the fastest, most direct route to get their cargo to its destination on time deciding to use I-70 through Colorado just to bypass a toll. That southern route has much heavier traffic as well as mountain passes.
The trucking official kept throwing objections up against the wall, seeing if any would stick. She said reimbursing non-truck Wyoming motorists wouldn’t be fair to the industry and could lead to lawsuits. Diversions, she predicted, will greatly hurt businesses along I-80, and if trucks go out-of-state Wyoming will lose registration revenue.
Foertsch said the cost of administering a toll program could be up to a third of new revenues. That sounds high to me.
“How much are we willing to spend to get that money collected?” she asked. “We’ve also never seen a toll go away or go down. That’s frightening for the industry.”
When Wyoming discussed tolling years ago, she said, a large Cheyenne-based carrier threatened to pull its terminal out of the state.
The trucking industry, though, should realize that it would benefit if Wyoming can improve I-80, maintain it and make it much safer. The money to do so has to come from somewhere, so why not the vehicles that inflict the highest costs and reap the highest benefits?
“I just don’t think the trucking industry is paying a fair rate,” said Committee Co-Chairman Rep. John Eklund (R-Cheyenne). He said heavy truck traffic has resulted in the I-80 corridor “getting burned up constantly, and it’s not fair to other Wyoming users.”
The committee may still appoint a task force later this year to look at other options besides tolling, and that’s perfectly reasonable. But as Rep. Jerry Obermueller (R-Casper) pointed out, the Legislature could eventually decide to do something else to generate I-80 revenue. “In two years, we can close this [draft master plan] down,” he said. “But if we don’t do this now, we’ll be trapped in this cycle.”
Getting the bill through the Legislature in next year’s budget session will be a heavy lift, since measures need two-thirds support in each chamber just to be introduced. Three of the five senators on the transportation committee voted against it.
But the WYDOT officials who testified made a clear and convincing case that endlessly studying the issue won’t accomplish anything. An investment in a master plan makes sense, and I hope the Legislature is listening to the state’s transportation experts.