Wyoming Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, introduces a bill to study tolling on major interstates roads through Wyoming in an effort to reduce mounting costs, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in the Capitol. The bill failed 11-18, with one senator absent. Nadav Soroker/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – A legislative attempt to study tolling along Interstate 80 failed its first test, as the state Senate rejected a bill that proponents say would help the state meet its road needs.

The bill, sponsored by the Joint Transportation Committee, would have authorized the creation of a master plan to explore tolling along Interstate 80. It also would have given authority to the Wyoming Transportation Commission to place tolls and issue bonds to pay for construction on I-80, though the master plan would have needed legislative approval before implementation.

Because it’s a budget session, every bill in the Senate needs to gain 20 votes, or two-thirds of the body, to be introduced. Senate File 6 failed by an 18-11 vote, with one senator absent.

While the state faces some immediate infrastructure needs, it would have taken nearly a decade to set up the tolling program. If the Legislature had passed the bill, the earliest the state could have expected to collect tolls would have been in 2029.

Prior to the vote, Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, who chairs the Senate Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee, noted the state is facing roughly $135 million worth of unmet road needs.

“(The bill) frees up about $32 million to $40 million that they use on regular maintenance on the highways and roadways,” Von Flatern said. “All this would be brought back to us for reporting as a bill in one to two years, depending on how we amend this bill.”

In an interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle after the vote, Von Flatern said he didn’t think any lawmaker would try to introduce the bill individually.

“I was really disappointed in the vote tally, because last time, the Senate passed it easily,” Von Flatern said. “It’s gone away, and I don’t know what we’ll do for funding.”

The study also would have examined ways to exempt people whose cars are registered in Wyoming from having to pay the tolls. Von Flatern emphasized this aspect to other lawmakers, and he thought the provision ultimately had little impact on the vote.

“I’m really not sure why they voted no,” he said.

While the bill was passed out of committee, several groups came out against the plan during that meeting last August.

Both the Wyoming Truckers Association and the Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association argued the bill was unfair to the transportation industry.

Wyoming first studied the idea of tolling I-80 in 2008 and 2009, but the Legislature didn’t act on that study and its recommendations. The Wyoming Department of Transportation again studied the issue in 2017, finding it to be one of several options to make up a growing deficit in highway maintenance funding.

Moving forward, it remains unclear how the state will pay for its roads. In October, the transportation committee rejected a bill that would have created a 15-member group, comprised of legislators and stakeholders from transportation industries, to explore funding strategies used by other states and entities. Ultimately, that measure failed due to some lawmakers’ reservations over creating additional task forces.

Von Flatern said the Legislature will have to take up the issue as an interim study to determine other ways to fund the state’s infrastructure needs.

“The alternative will be to raise some either through a fuel tax or some other way of funding $135 million, which will eventually start showing up as potholes,” Von Flatern said.

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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