Monday, October 26, 2009

Wyoming Proposes To Levy Tolls On Interstate 80 Via HB0179; Trucking Industry Leading The Opposition

On October 23rd, 2009, KSL Channel 5 briefly reported on future plans by the state of Wyoming to levy tolls on Interstate 80, which crosses the southern part of the state. Initially, it appears it might be an incremental plan, beginning with the construction of a special toll lane for trucks. Implementation appears to be several years away because both the Wyoming legislature and the federal government would have to approve any tolling scheme.

But the KSL story barely scratches the surface. An October 24th story in the Casper News-Tribune offers additional details. This plan is further along than most people realize. On Friday October 23rd, the Wyoming Joint Interim Committee on Transportation Highways and Military Affairs voted 7-5 to sponsor a bill, designated as HB0179, giving tolling authority to the Wyoming Department of Transportation and the highway commission. With the authority, the department could then make a formal request to the Federal Highway Administration to set up booths on the interstate. The bill will be introduced in the Wyoming Senate in February 2010.

The News-Tribune further explains that officials are eyeing the possibility of three lanes in each direction of the east-west highway across the southern portion of the state. One lane would be for trucks, and a tolling station could possibly be located between Rock Springs and Rawlins. The primary motive is financial; Patrick Collins, chief deputy engineer for the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said there isn't enough state or federal money to maintain the interstate at its present level, and traffic is expected to double during the next 30 years, with truck traffic accounting for 60 percent of the vehicles. The Star-Tribune does not make it clear whether initial implementation would be incremental (trucks only) or total (all traffic).

Here's the specifics from the I-80 Tolling Study:

Currently, a typical section of I-80 in Wyoming has a traffic count of about 13,000 vehicles per day, with heavy trucks making up about half of the traffic. During the next three decades, traffic is expected to double, with truck traffic increasing at an even faster rate than passenger vehicle traffic. (By 2037, heavy truck volume alone is projected to approach nearly 16,000 per day.) Meanwhile, estimates show maintaining I-80 in its present condition over the next 30 years would cost more than $6.4 billion, after adjusting for inflation, exceeding the total of revenue expected to be available for maintenance of the entire state highway system, much less I-80.

Wyoming has another incentive to proceed with this plan; namely, the lack of "toll diversion" opportunities for motorists. Although a study by a consultant found the possible reduction due to toll diversion might cost the state as much as $1 million in lost gasoline and vehicle fees during the first year, Rep. Roy Cohee (R-Casper), chairman of the House transportation committee, pointed out that Wyoming doesn't have many parallel roads to entice motorists off the interstate. A map of Wyoming validates his contention; there are clearly no side roads to I-80 between Evanston and Rawlins; although one could divert to U.S. 30 between Rawlins and Cheyenne. But in response to a Wyoming Tribune-Eagle story, one person identified as Mopar wrote, "I'm a trucker and when I go thru Wyoming, if I had to pay a toll I would off 80 and onto 76 and go thru Colo. and up thru Utah. The extra sixty or seventy mile would be worth it"

This latest effort kicked off in June 2009 with a series of public hearings at I-80 communities such as Cheyenne, Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs, and Evanston, as well as the I-25 city of Casper and the I-90 community of Gillette. At the time, the Billings Gazette reported that a study commissioned by the Wyoming Department of Transportation indicated that truckers would be willing to pay as much as $116 to use Interstate 80 to cross southern Wyoming; any toll higher than that would cause truckers to use other routes. During committee hearings on Friday, a proposal of $46 for trucks and $4.60 for cars to cross the state was discussed. But the trucking industry is leading the charge against the proposal.

On October 24th, the Gillette News-Record reported that the Wyoming Trucking Association continues to oppose an interstate toll, especially if the toll money is spent only on maintenance and new lanes aren’t added. The agency had concerns during a previous meeting about assumptions made in a feasibility report that studied a toll on the road. At the Friday committee hearings, Sheila Foertsch of the Wyoming Trucking Association objected to tolls as double taxation on truckers since they pay a gas tax and other fees. She also said tolls damage the trucking industry, reduce revenue to communities along the highway as travelers choose alternate routes, and eliminate jobs and job growth. She said her association has supported increased taxes on fuel in the past. The legislature's Revenue Committee does have a draft bill before it raising gasoline taxes by five cents a gallon that it has yet to discuss, but the advent of more fuel-efficient vehicles now as well as future vehicles not using traditional fuel may prevent a gas tax from meeting all of the state's transportation funding needs.

Analysis: Unfortunately, it appears toll advocates may have an edge here. The arguments about lack of "toll diversion" opportunities strengthen their case, for two reasons:

-- Central Location: I-80 is centrally-located. Thus there is a geographical incentive to funnel more traffic across I-80 than U.S. 40, I-70, I-40, or I-90. Not only do truckers traveling from Chicago to San Francisco have a greater incentive to use I-80 than other routes because it is more direct, but truckers going from Dallas to Seattle or Chicago to Los Angeles also have an incentive to use I-80 at least part of the time.

-- Ease of Use: I-80 is the easiest central route through the Rockies, with a minimum of switchbacks. U.S. 40 is also good - until you reach Berthoud Pass. I-70 has the Eisenhower Tunnel to eliminate the need to transit Loveland Pass, but it still can be a difficult route for motorists during the winter.

One question to be asked: Is Wyoming is getting the most out of existing road taxes and fees. Are existing taxes used exclusively for road construction and maintenance, or is some of the revenue diverted towards only marginally-related uses such as glitzy seat belt and DUI propaganda campaigns? While the progaganda is undoubtedly useful, road taxes should pay EXCLUSIVELY for road construction and maintenance...and NOTHING else.

No comments: