By Jordan Achs
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — Those who frequently travel on Interstate 80 are no strangers to winter road closures and unsafe conditions, but the Wyoming Department of Transportation is trying to improve on that. After winning a federal grant, WYDOT has enhancements planned for a 45-mile stretch of the interstate between Laramie and Rawlins, making the section safer for winter travel.
Keith Fulton, assistant chief engineer with WYDOT, said the main goal of the I-80 Winter Freight Improvement Project is to “reduce those wintertime crashes” as well as control the spacing and flow of traffic along the section of interstate.
The $20 million Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development grant from the Federal Highway Administration will be used to make truck passing lanes on the interstate's uphill stretches, as well as install parking areas for travelers to wait out winter storms.
Fulton said the engineering team at WYDOT did an analysis as part of its master plan for I-80, examining sections across the state and determining what areas needed improvements.
“Within that study, we looked at safety, traffic, truck movement, truck parking — the whole gambit of work that may be needed along I-80,” Fulton said. “This was an opportunity for us to look for some extra funding that we just don’t have to address some issues along I-80.”
Fulton said the stretch between Rawlins and Laramie is one that saw a lot of closures, terrain issues and a higher number of crashes during the study.
One of the contributing factors was slow-moving trucks, especially along the steeper grades.
The BUILD grant will be used to install truck passing lanes on 2 miles eastbound over Halleck Ridge and 3.53 miles westbound between Cooper Cove and Quealy Dome Road, according to a WYDOT news release. Fulton said the lanes — like the ones on the steeply-inclined portions of I-80 between Laramie and Cheyenne — would make traffic flow more smoothly.
“When you get those trucks on those steeper grades, they slow down,” Fulton said. “So, [the passing lanes] help keep the traffic flowing better and provide the ability for people to go around those slower trucks.”
Another measure to improve traffic flow is installing parking areas at Walcott Junction and Quealy Dome, and WYDOT’s news release said each will accommodate about 100 trucks. Fulton said the two parking options will keep some of the trucks and travelers from overcrowding the cities during storms – and after them.
“Lot of times when a road opens, and everybody tries to get in there at once, there’s additional crashes,” Fulton said. “So, we’re hoping if we add these truck parking areas, we can maybe attenuate that traffic a little bit and help reduce those crashes when the roads open.”
Fulton said the area will have radios and other communication devices so people will know when the interstate opens again. Many truckers expressed a need for more available truck parking on that stretch of land, Fulton said, especially for larger semi-trucks.
The grant application took a few months, Fulton said, and involved cost-benefit analyses, data collection, a clear plan and an estimated cost.
Part of the grant criteria, he added, involves using the money quickly. Fulton said he expects the project to go to contract as early as December 2020.
“It’s addressing a need that we couldn’t fund before, so we want to make sure we spend the money as efficiently and as fast as we can,” Fulton said.
WYDOT will use “other state and federal funds” in addition to the BUILD grant to complete the project, according to the news release.