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May 17, 2012 8:46 am

EDITORIAL: Grappling with high costs of highway maintenance

Written by Ilene Olson

With construction costs increasing and federal and state funding declining, the Wyoming Department of Transportation is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain and improve highways in Wyoming.

Locally, the good news is that the department will honor its commitment to widen the rest of the Powell-Cody highway (U.S. 14-A) to five lanes. The last section is slated for construction next year.
The bad news is, that and a planned widening of U.S. 14-16-20 west of Wapiti in 2014 to add shoulders to the roadway, are the last planned improvement projects in District 5. The district includes the Big Horn Basin and Fremont and Teton counties.
From there on out, it’s strictly maintenance only for the foreseeable future.
That’s because inflation is adding to the department’s cost to maintain highways, and the federal government is decreasing highway funding — which currently makes up 80 percent of highway funding in Wyoming.
In addition, Wyoming lawmakers have indicated they may not be willing to continue providing one-time funding for highway maintenance and construction in the state.
Adding insult to injury is the increasingly urgent need to repair and maintain Interstate 80, prompting the department to take funding from other districts — including District 5 — to help pay for those repairs.
Those were some of the messages of gloom department officials had for the Park County Commission and local municipal governments at a meeting in Cody on Tuesday.
Since the department schedules its plans years in advance, that picture isn’t likely to change any time soon unless the department receives additional revenue from state or federal sources.
While the Wyoming Legislature has considered imposing additional fuel taxes or making  I-80 a toll highway for commercial trucks, so far, those measures have met with little success.
Some have argued — appropriately — that the federal government should pay the lion’s share of the costs to maintain and improve Interstate 80. That highway, crossing southern Wyoming, serves as a major cross-country artery from the East Coast to the West Coast, serving as a conduit for transporting goods as well as the driving public. A vast majority of the traffic on the highway begins and ends in states other than Wyoming.
But, with the current federal debt and political environment, it’s not likely that the feds will pony up any time soon.
There are no easy answers, but the longer we wait to find a solution to the highway funding tug-of-war, the worse the built-up need for that funding becomes. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to deal with these issues, and it will be a lot less painful sooner than later.


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