CASPER, Wyo. — Concerned that environmental policies may be influencing the speed limits on some Wyoming highways, the state Legislature directed the Wyoming Department of Transportation to report whether it lowers any speed limits when seeking federal clearance on road construction projects.
WYDOT officials say there are various reasons for lowering speeds, including the alignment of the road and to reduce collisions with wildlife.
In the supplemental budget bill passed this winter, the Legislature ordered WYDOT to submit a report by Sept. 1 on whether it lowers speed limits to curry favor or comply with Washington when obtaining permission for road reconstruction on federal lands during the environmental review process. WYDOT must also describe other reasons for slower speeds.
Legislators are especially miffed about Wyoming Highway 34 through Sybille Canyon, Togwotee Pass and U.S. 14/16/20 between Cody and Yellowstone's East Gate — all roads that were reconstructed and reopened with slower speeds than before reconstruction.
"We have a lot of distances that need to be covered with nothing in between, traffic-wise," Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, said. Von Flatern is co-chairman of the Joint Transportation Interim Committee, which will hear the WYDOT report.
Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, was one of the lawmakers who requested the WYDOT report. He berated the slower speeds on Togwotee Pass, formerly 65 mph and now 55 mph, and on the road between Cody and Yellowstone, formerly 65 mph and now 50 mph.
Togwotee Pass is on U.S. Forest Service land, WYDOT chief engineer Delbert McOmie tells the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/10dRE6n).
Under federal law, WYDOT had to take comment from environmental groups and state and federal agencies, such as the Sierra Club, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, McOmie said.
Many of the agencies and groups wanted a slower speed, and the curves and hills on the pass also warranted a 55 mph speed, he said.
"Even though the road looks flatter and wider than it was before — and it is — from a design standpoint, the new design standards, which have improved over the years, would have required an even wider, flatter roadway" to go faster, McOmie said.
Outside of Cody, the highway speeds were reduced because of wildlife. Inside Yellowstone National Park, the speed limit is 45 mph.
"This was a good way to get people accustomed to slowing down," said Bob Bonds, WYDOT environmental coordinator, who insisted the federal government cannot force WYDOT to set a speed limit during environmental review.
House Majority Floor Leader Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, is irritated by the 55 mph speed limit in Sybille Canyon, which used to be 65. Brown sponsored two bills limiting WYDOT's ability to decrease speeds but both bills failed to pass.
"They spend incredible amounts of money and then come out with a speed limit that just seems completely out of sync with the quality of highway they're building," Brown said of WYDOT.
Wetlands, Game and Fish research station pastures and private property concerns led WYDOT to lower the speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph in the canyon, Joel Meena, WYDOT traffic engineer, said.
Meena also noted that the Federal Highway Administration paid for a part of the canyon reconstruction project.
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