CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Wyoming Legislature's recent decision not to authorize a study of whether to impose tolls on Interstate 80 leaves the state facing the prospect of both higher gasoline taxes and more potholes in the coming years, transportation officials say.
A bill calling for a study of the I-80 tolling issue passed in the Senate but died in the House in the legislative session that ended early this month.
State transportation officials have warned that the interstate, a favorite of long-haul truckers heading east-west across southern Wyoming, is in danger of deteriorating in coming years if the state doesn't roughly double the $68 million a year it's been putting into upkeep.
"If we took all of the funding that we presently have and that we project to have over the next 30 years or so, it would not be sufficient to maintain Interstate 80 in its present condition," said Pat Collins, assistant chief engineer for engineering and planning with the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
Collins testified at legislative committee hearings in favor of studying possible tolls on I-80. He told lawmakers that about 90 percent of the 13,000 vehicles a day that use the interstate are from out of state. He said the state had only a limited opportunity under current federal transportation law to apply to impose tolls on I-80.
Funding I-80 with a dedicated gasoline tax increase would require a tax increase of 30 cents a gallon, Collins said recently. He said imposing such a significant increase in fuel taxes doesn't seem likely.
Wyoming recently used the federal economic stimulus program to perform I-80 maintenance work. While Collins said that work may last for five to 10 years, he said, the condition of the highway will fall off rapidly after that without more maintenance.
"Not having enough funding for Interstate 80 means that it's going to go downhill," Collins said. "And then as we try to spread that funding over the other miles of roadway in the state, it's likely that they will deteriorate also, at some rate. The bottom line is that we will not be able to maintain any of the highways in the state of Wyoming at their present condition."
Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, chairman of the Senate Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs, had urged his fellow lawmakers to pass the tolling study bill.
"We certainly beat that one to death," Von Flatern said of the tolling idea, noting that his committee has been having hearings on the issue for the past two years.
The transportation committee won't consider the tolling issue again at least before next year's legislative session. However, legislative leaders did direct the committee to consider whether to increase the state's current 14 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and diesel.
Sen. Gerald Geis, a Republican from Worland and a former trucker, voted against the tolling bill in the senate transportation committee.
"The first thing is that the feds got to step up and take their responsibility," Geis said of the I-80 situation. "They'd love to have the state take over all those interstates; they wouldn't have to put any money in them."
Geis said he expects Wyoming will have to impose a fuel tax increase. He said the state also may have to go back to a system he said it had in place until about 20 years ago in which it charged trucks a fee according to their weight limits to cover road expenses.
Erin Taylor, executive director of the Wyoming Tax Payers Association, said her group has supported proposals to increase state fuel taxes, "based on the fact that they are user fees; the folks who are using the road should be paying for it."
The association hasn't taken a position on the prospect of imposing tolls on I-80, Taylor said.
Chris Boswell, chief of staff to Gov. Dave Freudenthal, said the governor believes that the state should keep its options open and continue to pressure the federal government to "live up to its responsibilities in terms of maintaining the federal highway system."
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