WyDOT: Major road projects put on hold

Posted 6/9/09

Last month, WyDOT district engineer Shelby Carlson told Park County commissioners that the department is “really just moving into a maintenance mode to hold the thing together, the system, until the economy improves.”

That message was …

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WyDOT: Major road projects put on hold


Powell-Cody highway expansion lone exceptionWith economic times rough, don't expect to see too much major road work over the next few years.That's the message to local governments from the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

Last month, WyDOT district engineer Shelby Carlson told Park County commissioners that the department is “really just moving into a maintenance mode to hold the thing together, the system, until the economy improves.”

That message was echoed at a Thursday meeting between local officials and WyDOT representatives.

Travelers across the state will see a slew of new projects this summer and next — but that's largely due to the one-time federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Some $29.7 million from the stimulus package is going towards roads in WyDOT's northwest district, which includes more than 1,300 miles of highway in Park, Big Horn, Washakie, Hot Springs, Fremont counties, as well as parts of Natrona and Teton.

But the stimulus is only a temporary boost, and funding for the northwest district is expected to drop from $66 million this year to $45 million in 2010.

Carlson said the department is planning for the rough economic climate to last about three years.

During that time, the only major project planned in the district is the continued expansion of the Powell-Cody highway — from three to five lanes.

Reconstruction on the next 3.8-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 14-A is slated to begin this summer, using $10.2 million of stimulus money.

The state's transportation improvement program calls for another 3.2 miles of 14-A to be put out to bid in 2010, likely in the fall, at an estimated cost of $11.3 million.

Because of heightened costs, the final 3.2 miles have been split into two phases — 1.3 miles ($5.2 million) in 2013, and 1.9 ($10.25 million) in 2014.

Given the added costs of running two separate projects, “This is something that's pretty frustrating for us to split,” said Keith Compton, WyDOT's district construction engineer.

However, the projects are being developed at the same time in case money becomes available for both to be done at once.

“We're eternal optimists,” he said.

That optimism is surprising given recent construction inflation.

Over the last three years, WyDOT's project costs have jumped by an average of 24 percent each year. For the northwest district, that means spending an additional $9 million each year for the same amount of work.

However, in a positive side effect, the current economic slump has slowed that inflation and brought lower construction bids.

“Currently, our bids are coming up really good,” Carlson said. “We're getting close to having our work (for this year) out the door.”

WyDOT is “leading the nation” in allocating its stimulus money, she said, having some 98 percent of its dollars out for bidding.

With costs down, that speed has had its rewards.

So far, the district's stimulus projects have come in at a combined $5 million under budget, Carlson said. The upcoming phase of the Powell-Cody highway expansion was originally estimated at a cost of $14.8 million, then fell to $13.4 million, and actually came in at $10.2 million.

The savings have enabled the department to fund additional projects with stimulus money. One may include helping fund the demolition and replacement of the restrooms at Homesteader Park. Currently, the city of Powell has $200,000 of WyDOT funding and $50,000 in local match money lined up.

If excess stimulus funds are available, WyDOT could provide another $250,000 towards the project. However, that's still just a small chunk of an expected $2 million cost.

Unless other funding comes through, “We may have to hold off on doing the entire project,” said Gary Butts, Powell streets superintendent, in a separate interview.

Other local WyDOT projects slated for coming years include a 2011 overlay and chip seal of the 4.8 mile stretch of 14-A between Powell and Garland.

Farther off in the future is the continued reconstruction of Coulter Avenue — removing the concrete median and expanding to five lanes. Re-doing the final one and a half miles between Cheyenne Street and Road 8 is estimated at $10 million.

It's possible that the project could begin in 2016, but it — and all future projects — are subject to change and economics.

“It does say D-R-A-F-T on the front (of WyDOT's project list),” said Compton. “There's a reason for that. It is a relatively dynamic document.”

For instance, in Cody, the department had been planning to reconstruct the stretch of 8th Street that runs from near Buffalo Bill Historical Center to the West Strip. But cost estimates for the 1.2 mile project came in at $14.9 million.

With an annual budget around $45 million and 1,326 miles of roadway to spend it on, “I can't put $15 million on one mile,” Carlson said.

WyDOT is now looking at ways to cut the cost — perhaps reducing roadway parking and downgrading street lights.

With the budget tightening, Carlson said the district's focus will generally switch to maintenance — such as chip sealing, overlays and patching — rather than reconstruction.

While reconstruction can be put on hold, doing so with maintenance can be expensive.

Wyoming's roadways are designed with a 20- to 25-year lifespan. Delaying renovation beyond that point — allowing the road to slide from fair to very poor condition — becomes four to eight times more expensive.

“I wish I could bring something to you that was a little bit more dead sexy, but this is where we find ourselves today,” Compton told administrators from Park County government and Cody.

“I'd almost rather not see your updates,” said Steve Payne, Cody's public works director. “They keep getting uglier and uglier.”