Wyoming could be facing tough questions on highway funding this interim

By Nick Reynolds

Casper Star-Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — Car ownership is almost a prerequisite for living in Wyoming.

In a nation that tops the world in automobile ownership per capita, Wyoming ranks the highest among states, with nearly 300,000 more vehicles than residents, according to 2015 statistics from the Federal Highway Administration. For many in this far-flung and lightly populated state, the only means of connectivity is the two-lane highway leading out of town.

Wyoming, however, is having difficulty footing the bill. 

In October, the Wyoming Department of Transportation revealed that the agency is currently facing a $135 million shortfall in what it needs to maintain the current conditions of the state’s roads.

“There is never enough money for infrastructure repairs,” said Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R- Gillette, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs. “We have been going along making repairs versus improvements for several years.”

Unless something changes, Wyoming’s highways could be in a difficult place.

The cost of maintaining Wyoming’s most desolate — but necessary — thoroughfares does not come cheaply. Of that $135 million shortfall, $72 million consists of funding for construction and maintenance projects. Meanwhile, sources to garner funding for those projects have been elusive, and when they have come along they’ve quickly been wiped out.

Though a 2013 piece of legislation raised the state’s gas tax by 10 cents — a needed expense when the federal gas tax has not increased since 1993 — shifts in the status quo like increasing fuel efficiency, the advent of electric cars and shrinking prices on a gallon of gasoline have offset any new funding the tax may have brought. That means revenues and expenditures have stayed stable since then — presenting a conundrum for Von Flatern’s committee this interim session.

“Today we are paying more to reconstruct roads that we did last year or the year before and before that,” Von Flatern said.

With costs increasing while revenues and expenses remain stable, highway departments find themselves having to do more with less. According to Chief Fiscal Officer Dennis Byrne, WYDOT does a fantastic job leveraging every state and local dollar it can — to the tune of roughly $1.64 in federal funds for every dollar in state funding — but maintaining a certain level of stability matters.

“It is accurate to say that if you don’t put adequate funding into an asset, it will decay over time, and to bring that asset back to a certain standard will be more expensive,” Byrne said. “It’s easier to maintain an asset than it is to rehabilitate or reconstruct an asset.”

Eventually, Wyoming — and a highway system 75 percent supported by federal funds, according to Byrne — may have to do even more in order to maintain its roads.

In a hearing on highway infrastructure funding held by the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, chaired by Sen. John Barrasso in Washington earlier this week, state and municipal transit officials discussed numerous challenges they each faced in financing the maintenance of their transportation systems at the state level.