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Prospectus Blog Tolling Wyoming? Howzzat, Podnah?

It’s common enough to hear that we need more tolling in urban regions to help fund maintenance, repair and extension of highways (not to mention the time-saving benefits of tolled express lanes). But tolling in Wyoming, a.k.a. “Big Wyoming” and “the Cowboy State,” population 493,782? What gives?
Here’s what: Interstate 80 across Wyoming is wearing down, traffic is expected to more than double by 2037, and money is scarce. As the Interstate Atlas shows, I-80 is an important route to our Cascadia region, via a short spur to I-84, which then runs through Boise to Portland and I-5 just south of the border with Washington; in Sacramento, it also connects directly with I-5, the major artery defining the West Coast Corridor from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border. I-80 runs the length of the country, east to west. Trucks will comprise 57 percent of the I-80 load in Wyoming in 2037, up from about half now. Forty percent of the highway in the state is in poor to moderate condition, and 50 percent will need major rehabilitation by 2013. So, as the Laramie Boomerang reports, the state is already in the second phase of an I-80 tolling study that’s looking at several options to fund current and future road maintenance needs. Tolling would be electronic, with vehicle and license plate cameras and radar detectors mounted above the highway. The main options are:

  • tolling I-80 in Wyoming at 30 cents per mile for heavy trucks and 3 cents per mile for passenger vehicles (two possible configurations);
  • employ tolling to help pay for construction of a third lane in each direction for heavy trucks only on I-80 in Wyoming.
  • Operators could stand to pay up to $116 per truck in tolls to cross the state, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation. Any more and they would tend to divert to other routes. Permission is required from the Federal Highway Administration to toll interstate highways, but this would likely pose no obstacle because the federal government simply lacks the resources its gas tax once provided for highway upkeep and construction, after four decades of steep growth in highway usage and ever-mounting maintenance and expansion needs. Tolling has already been allowed and implemented on a number of other interstates. And Wyoming’s own gas tax, for better or worse, is a scant 14 cents per gallon and unlikely to be hiked by any significant degree. That Mustang won’t ride.
    Unlike more urbanized locales, the issue is upkeep, not that plus congestion. Wyoming’s prescient attempt to figure out how to keep I-80 in good repair is a useful reminder that highways we may take for granted aren’t free to maintain. The story also underscores the crucial role of freight in the economy. It’s great to buy local when we can, but that’s often simply not possible. All lofty rhetoric aside, we want what we want when we want it, and price matters. So, there are lots of trucks rumbling down I-80 through Wyoming, and many more to come. Take the same reality and multiply the traffic volumes exponentially, and you begin to get the scope, nationally. Moving more freight via rails is a good idea – and should be pursued energetically. But that too will take many billions of dollars, in this case for new infrastructure, and serve only a portion of growing freight volume.
    In addition to evaluating specific in-state revenue scenarios, the study consultants – Parsons Brinkerhoff – will also produce a stand-alone memo reporting on outreach to neighboring states along I-80 (Nebraska and Utah) on a joint approach to tolling the corridor, and the possibility of pursuing a public-private partnership to help assure the highway’s continued viability.
    As for the main menu options right now, a first-phase feasibility study completed last October by Parsons seems to all but rule out the new, tolled truck-only lanes as too expensive, at $7 billion, leaving two other “all lanes tolled” possibilities. One – the so-called “baseline” alternative – would entail no expansion of the highway and raise $3.01 billion between 2009 and 2037, with the lowest annual maintenance and operations costs. The other would add a lane in each direction, with each inside (left) lane for cars only, and trucks keeping to the right except to use the center lane for passing. This would cost $2.8 billion, with tolling raising $3.21 billion by 2037. The feasibility study also indicates additional funds could be generated if a politically-problematic attempt to raise the state’s exceptionally low fuel taxes succeeded.
    Although the feasibility study is only a first-phase product and more detailed analysis including community input is occurring now, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the baseline alternative – with its $3 billion in revenues and lowest costs by far – will be the final choice. Maintenance and operations needs include work already forestalled, ongoing work with annual price tag of at least $25 million, and an every-15-years major rehabilitation and repair program that actually unfolds over the course of several years. According the feasibility study, that latter effort alone would cost about $1.1 billion in the cycle pegged to 2024.
    Results of the current, second phase of the I-80 tolling study will be presented September 1 to the Wyoming legislature.