Wyoming Plans to Toll Interstate 80
The Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) will kick off a week of “open house” meetings today to promote a proposal that would add tolls along the 400 miles of Interstate 80 that pass through the state. Unlike interstate tolling plans introduced in other parts of the country as “congestion reduction” measures, this one would not add new lane capacity. In a state with a population of just over a half-million, congestion is not even an issue after projecting population and traffic growth for another thirty years. WYDOT’s real target is out-of-state truck drivers.
Interstate 80 serves as a primary route for trucks hauling goods between Northern California and New Jersey. Wyoming’s share of the highway sees an average of just 12,920 vehicles per day. Trucks account for one-half of traffic, or a daily volume of 6,438. In absolute terms, the figure is lower than all other primary interstate routes. For example, an average of 10,000 trucks use Interstate 95 between Florida and Virginia on a daily basis along with another 62,000 automobiles. Still, Wyoming wants to hit the eighty percent of traffic that is just passing through the state.
“Federal interstate maintenance funding levels are currently insufficient to properly maintain the Wyoming span of I-80 due to high levels of truck traffic,” a WYDOT-funded tolling feasibility study stated. “The two approaches that merited further consideration from a financial feasibility perspective were truck-only toll lanes and tolling of all traffic on the existing capacity without any roadway expansion. These two approaches are politically challenging, but financially, have promise in solving WYDOT’s roadway maintenance funding dilemma.”
Under the current system, motorists pay an 18.4-cent federal tax and a 14-cent state tax for each gallon of gas sold in Wyoming. The tax is collected at the distributor level with very little overhead. For the $166 million in federal fuel and motoring taxes paid into the system in 2007, Wyoming received $238 million back in federal road funding. This 43-percent boost comes from populous “donor” states like California and Texas under the theory that the entire country benefits by subsidizing interstates in rural areas so that goods can travel coast-to-coast quickly and efficiently.
Wyoming currently does not use tolls on any of its roads, but WYDOT is betting that Congress this year will change the rules and eliminate restrictions on the tolling of interstate highways. WYDOT is mounting a public relations campaign to encourage the state legislature to act now.
“If Wyoming wishes to participate in future tolling opportunities allowed by the FHWA, it is critical to establish tolling legislation and organizational plans for a smooth implementation,” the report stated.
The study explained that, unlike in other states, there would be little sense in using the billions that would be raised on new lane construction. It also explained that other state departments of transportation believe that congestion on free roads can be wielded as an economic tool to force motorists to pay to use toll roads. Because this tool is unavailable in Wyoming, the plan depends upon motorist confusion and the threat of dangerous conditions to drive traffic onto the paid route.
“A parallel facility would be prohibitively expensive and congestion on the primary competing free road, I-80 is not sufficient to cause motorists to use the toll road,” the report concluded. “Diversion options are not likely to be considered cost effective by truckers unless the toll rate on I-80 was in excess of about $170, especially in winter months when these roads could be much more treacherous than I-80…. passenger cars traveling long distances or from out of state would not likely know an efficient route by which to divert around the tolling point.”
Using mapping software and computer modeling, the study calculated how many trucks and cars would divert to alternate surface street and freeway routes based on the added cost in time and fuel to do so. It concluded that the optimal toll rate of $116 per truck and $9.46 per car would generate $172 million in annual revenue and cut use of the road by half. That amount is far in excess of what it costs to run the road.
As a freeway, it costs just $13 million per year to run Wyoming’s stretch of Interstate 80. This amount includes $6.9 million for pavement maintenance, $4 million for snow removal and $2 million for miscellaneous costs such as trash removal and guardrail repair.
The overhead and equipment required to collect tolls nearly doubles the cost, adding $12 million to the annual bill. This amount includes $5 million for credit card transaction and toll processing fees, $2.3 million to deploy ten highway patrol officers toll violation ticket duty, $1.9 million for a courtesy patrol, $1.5 million in salaries for two dozen staff, $810,440 for office space and supplies, $591,590 to maintain the tolling equipment and $180,400 to pay the manager in charge of the project.
Under the full-price tolling plan, the state would generate $147 million in annual profit, which would grow to $550 million a year by 2030 thanks to regular toll increases. The study briefly mentioned that by indexing the existing 14 cent gas tax to the rate of inflation, the state would collect an extra $184 million over ten years without tolling.
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