I-80 tolling bill tabled by House committee

CHEYENNE — A bill that would have authorized a long-term plan to set up an Interstate 80 tolling program was tabled by a legislative committee Tuesday, meaning the proposal will not be considered on the House floor during the remainder of the Legislature’s general session.

Senate File 73, which won narrow final approval from the Senate last week, would have set in motion the development of a master I-80 tolling plan from the Wyoming Department of Transportation, which faces annually unmet needs in its department totaling more than $300 million, according to a recent report.

Bill sponsor Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, presented his proposal to the House Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee on Tuesday, arguing that I-80 tolls could solve many of the state’s road funding woes and make the interstate “a true asset to our nation’s transcontinental transportation system.”

“I am terrified of what’s going to happen to Wyoming if we don’t keep our infrastructure up, if we can’t maintain that road, if we can’t begin to partially solve the big revenue and expenditure problem of the state,” Case told the committee. “It could make Wyoming kind of a ghost town.”

Case reminded the committee that newly built tolling systems are not like the old ones that had large tollbooths stationed every so often along a highway. Instead, the I-80 tolling system would operate with electronic license plate readers, like the E-470 toll road near Denver.

WYDOT Director Luke Reiner explained his department’s financial struggles to the committee Tuesday, noting WYDOT cannot currently meet the funding levels needed for maintenance of Interstate 80. WYDOT spends roughly $65 million each year on upkeep of the road, well below the roughly $110 million in annual funding needed to “adequately” maintain it, Reiner said.

“We leave the rest as unfunded, because we just don’t have the money,” Reiner said. “As we watch, we know I-80 is getting worse.”

An I-80 tolling program could bring considerable revenue to help fill those funding gaps for WYDOT, potentially freeing up money in other areas of its budget. Depending on the per-mile toll rates authorized under a master plan, I-80 tolling could bring in anywhere from $80 million to $170 million annually for repairs and reconstruction of the interstate.

While the bill would authorize a long-term tolling plan, the state Legislature would have several chances to reverse course on the tolling proposal before the implementation of any tolls. Any tolling program on a federal roadway would have to first gain approval from the Federal Highway Administration, and Reiner estimated that the earliest that would happen would be in 2023. Under the bill, tolling likely wouldn’t begin until 2025, according to WYDOT estimates.

Case, who chairs the Senate Revenue Committee, emphasized the state’s struggle to find sustainable revenue measures, and he encouraged his colleagues to advance the bill now, with the option of changing their minds later down the road.

“We don’t have a plan B that’s any good,” Case said. “If we decide that it’s a bad fit, then we stop pursuing it, and we instruct the department to abandon the plan, but we have to do that with legislation. Otherwise, we don’t have anything. We have a deteriorating road, poor economic conditions for these communities, worse outcomes for roads around the state … We need to do this.”

However, members of the House committee declined to advance the bill any farther during their meeting. Rep. Joe MacGuire, R-Casper, offered a motion to table the bill, and the motion was easily adopted, with only Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, opposing it.

Although lawmakers didn’t have much discussion of the bill prior to tabling it, chairman Rep. Donald Burkhart Jr., R-Rawlins, said his committee needed to continue examining and developing the failed proposal in the coming months.

With only a week to go in the Legislature’s general session, SF 73 becomes the second transportation funding proposal to hit a road block this year. House Bill 26, a measure to increase the state’s fuel tax rate to generate roughly $60 million in funding for state and county roads, was not considered on the House floor by a cutoff deadline earlier this month.