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High Cost of Maintenance Prompts Wyoming Legislators to Consider Tolling I-80

Over the objections of the oil and trucking industries, an interim committee voted to allow the Wyoming legislature to determine whether to toll all lanes on Interstate 80 due to a shortfall in the state transportation budget.
August 18, 2019, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Interstate 80
Tristan Brynildsen

[Updated, August 27, 2019]

Seven years ago, Republican Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming broke the logjam on hiking state gas taxes when he signed legislation increasing the state's gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. Since then, 31 states have raised or reformed their gas taxes, reported Carl Davis of ITEP on June 29.

Now Wyoming legislators are taking up another difficult transportation funding challenge – tolling interstate highways. Over four hundred miles of Interstate 80 could be tolled by the Wyoming Transportation Commission as a result of a 7-6 vote on August 13 by the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee to pass a bill to authorize the commission to prepare a master plan and grant them tolling and bonding authority, writes Ramsey Scott, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's state government reporter, via Wyoming News Exchange.

While the proposed legislation won approval Tuesday, that slim margin is indicative of the potential struggle awaiting it in 2020. Both the Wyoming Trucking Association and the Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association testified against the bill as an unfair burden on the transportation industry, and said it will push drivers to alternative routes and cost businesses along the I-80 corridor money.

Committee co-chairman Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, has been a major proponent of tolling I-80 and said Wyoming has already spent years studying the issue. Instead, the Legislature should start to act on putting into motion a viable way to pay for infrastructure needs along I-80.

Transportation budget shortfall for I-80

According to Scott, "Wyoming first studied the idea of tolling I-80 back in 2008 and 2009, but the Legislature shelved that study and its recommendations in 2010.  [Wyoming Department of TransportationWYDOT again studied the issue in 2017, as one of several options to make up a growing deficit in highway maintenance funding."

As for the costs to maintain the interstate, "Shelby Carlson, chief engineer at WYDOT, said as of now, Wyoming spends about $60 million a year...but would need an additional $41.5 million to keep it in its current state."

The uphill road to tolling interstates

Due to the decision to finance the 1956 Interstate Highway Act with gas taxes rather than tolls, there exists a general prohibition on the imposition of tolls on existing interstate highways (pre-existing tolls were 'grandfathered', such as stretches of I-80 in IllinoisIndiana and Ohio). States must apply to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for a waiver under four possible tolling programs.

Should the tolling legislation pass next year, WYDOT would likely apply for a waiver under the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program to "fund needed reconstruction or rehabilitation on Interstate corridors that could not otherwise be adequately maintained or functionally improved without the collection of tolls" (per FHWA).

"While several states have applied to the Federal Highway Administration to use the program since its creation, none have actually followed through and approved a toll," adds Scott.

Do note below that Oregon applied last December under the same program and is awaiting approval, which appears "likely," and that Rhode Island not only received approval, though under a different tolling program, has been tolling heavy-duty trucks for almost a year.

Other states' attempts at interstate tolling

  • Pennsylvania: One of the first attempts at tolling an existing interstate also occurred on I-80, about 1,500 miles with the passage of Act 44 by the Pennsylvania General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ed Rendell in July 2007. It directed the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) and PennDOT to apply for a waiver under the same pilot program. The opposition was so strong that federal legislation, ultimately unsuccessful, was introduced by two Pennsylvania congressmen to ensure "freeways remain free" According to the PTC's Act 44 webpage:

In April 2010, FHWA denied Pennsylvania’s application to toll I-80. The FHWA interpretation of the Section 129 General Tolling Program is that the lease payments as proposed were inconsistent with the statutory requirements of the program. Specifically, the lease would have the effect of diverting toll revenues collected from the operation of I-80 to projects on other roads.

It also applied for a tolling prohibition waiver and under the ISRRP Program "to toll all lanes on or near the Abernethy Bridge on I-205 to raise revenue for a new or seismically retrofitted bridge at the Clackamas County chokepoint," reported Andrew Theen of The Oregonian on Jan. 10. "[T]he Federal Highway Administration said [on Jan. 8] both tolling proposals are 'likely eligible' to move forward."
Section 129 General Tolling Program allows tolling on new highways and new lanes added to existing highways, and on the reconstruction or replacement of bridges, tunnels and existing toll facilities.

A long wait for tolls

"Even if the [Wyoming] Legislature passes the 2020 bill, it would need to vote again in 2022 on a management plan for tolling and then seek federal approval," adds Scott. "[T]he earliest the state could expect to collect tolls would be 2029."

Related in Planetizen:

Hat tip to IBTTA Smart Brief.

[Editor's note: The Section 129 General Tolling Program was previously named as the ISRRP Program. The article was updated to correct the error.]
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Published on Wednesday, August 14, 2019 in Buffalo Bulletin
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