I-80 tolling bill gains initial support from Senate

CHEYENNE — A bill that would set in motion a long-term plan to set up a tolling program for Interstate 80 gained initial approval from the Wyoming Senate on Wednesday afternoon, as lawmakers search for ways to remedy a funding deficit for the state’s roads and bridges.

Senate File 73, which still needs to gain two more votes of support from the body before it could go to the House, would authorize a master plan for I-80 to be developed by the Wyoming Department of Transportation, which faces annually unmet needs totaling more than $300 million, according to a recent report.

The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, described the proposal as “a very unique opportunity for all of us to do some good for a while,” noting that the state’s traditional revenues used for roads, specifically from fuel and severance taxes, have diminished significantly in recent years.

“What I’m proposing is something that’s practical, can be done and, in our modern world, is fairly simple,” Case said. “First off, toll roads aren’t like they used to be. There are no toll booths. It’s all electronic. That makes it a lot easier.”

Although not contained in the bill, Case cited Wyoming Department of Transportation scenarios, under which commercial trucks would be charged 25 cents per mile driven, while passenger vehicles would have to pay 2.5 cents per mile. He also floated the idea of providing a free allowance for a certain number of miles traveled along I-80 per day for every driver, as an effort to avoid having much impact on local commuters.

“We could figure that out and set tolls accordingly,” Case said. “It can be pretty painless to local communities, pretty painless to our drivers, pretty painless to our populace, but pretty wonderful for what it could do with our system of roads in the future, where we have roads that are friendly to wildlife (and) friendly to motorists motoring through wildlife.”

Although efforts to collect tolls for drivers along Interstate 80 have repeatedly failed in past sessions, some lawmakers felt that this year could be different during floor debate Wednesday. Under the proposal, Case said the Legislature would still have the ability to reject a tolling program in the future as the plan develops, a point that gave his bill more backing from legislators.

“Sometimes the third time’s a charm. Sometimes the sixth time’s a charm,” Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said. “This bill has been here before, and I’ve been part of voting against it in the past, but this one’s a little bit different. This bill doesn’t commit us. It just says we want to hear more.”

A few lawmakers raised concerns over the tolling legislation, including whether it would be allowed by the Wyoming Constitution and how it would impact local versus out-of-state drivers. However, the legislation passed a voice vote on its first reading, setting it up for further discussion in the Wyoming Senate in the coming days.