WYDOT in need of new highway funding

News Billings Gazette September 05, 2006
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As the federal government cuts back on highway funding, and Wyoming's roadways sink to their worst conditions in decades, highway administrators and state lawmakers say the state is going to have to dig deep into its own pockets to address the problem, the Wyoming Billings Gazette reported.

I don't think it would be a stretch to say that the Department of Transportation is desperately in need of stateside funding," said John Cox, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT).

While bureaucrats often say their departments need more money, Cox is serious. And key state lawmakers say they agree with him, the newspaper reported.

Since the beginning of the federal fiscal year last October, the U.S. Department of Transportation has cut more than $27 million in highway funds that had been appropriated by Congress and earmarked for Wyoming, according the Billings Gazette.

Cuts in federal funds to states, or budget recessions, are fairly common. However, the $27 million in cuts to Wyoming's federal funding so far this year dwarf the cuts in previous years, said WYDOT Budget Analyst Joe Mikesell.

Mikesell said the feds rescinded $8.2 million in highway funding earmarked for Wyoming in 2005; $1.4 million in 2004 and $1.8 million in 2003.

Congress has rescinded billions of dollars in highway funds nationwide in three separate actions this fiscal year, in part to cover the cost of rebuilding after natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Federal highway cuts are starting to take a real toll on state highway programs, according to Vic Miller, who tracks federal highway funding for Federal Funds Information for States, a Washington-based subscription service that helps governors and state legislatures track federal funding.

"At one point, many states had unused contract authority that would probably never be utilized, and recessions of this sort had little net impact," Miller wrote in an August report that looked at highway funding cuts.

"However, the regular chipping away at amounts available for the core federal-aid highway programs has begun to undermine the ability of states to finance standard highway construction and repair in the manner envisioned by [federal highway law]," Miller wrote.

Often times, so-called federal budget cuts really only mean that federal spending is still increasing, albeit at a lower rate than anticipated, according to the newspaper. But that's not the case in Wyoming, state highway officials say.

Kevin Hibbard, budget officer at WYDOT, said the department received $201 million from the Federal Highway Administration in 2002, $208 million in 2003, $215 million in 2004 and $225 million in 2005. But with the federal funding cuts this year, Hibbard said the state is on track to receive $216 million from the federal government.

Adding to the problem is the rising cost of construction materials, particularly asphalt, in recent months, the Billings Gazette reported.

Del McOmie, chief engineer with WYDOT, said recently that the cost of oil used to make asphalt has risen from $250 per ton to more than $500. Contractors are having to delay paving jobs because of difficulty finding asphalt.

Increases in materials costs also are limiting the amount of road miles in the state that can be repaired. WYDOT announced this summer that while it funded 135 projects in 1998, it expects to complete only 79 this year.

Because of the federal funding cuts, WYDOT said it had postponed work on several road projects, including reconstruction of seven miles of the northbound lanes of I-25 from the Colorado border north and rebuilding five miles of I-25 east of Casper.

Some contractors put in bids on highway projects a couple of years ago when asphalt oil was less than $200, said Jonathan Downing, assistant vice president with the Wyoming Contractor's Association.

"Where does this leave contractors right now in Wyoming?" Downing said. "With the price increases and inflation we've experienced in the region, I'd say that we're somewhere in the neighborhood of a 150% increase in the cost of what goes into the road right now since 1998."

Cox said inflation has "been a whole separate aggravator to our ability to do business, and it has absolutely brought our construction program to a standstill."

The result, Cox said, is a decline in the condition of Wyoming's highways.

WYDOT issued a report in July concluding that for the first time in more than two decades, more than half of Wyoming's highways are rated in either fair or poor condition. The annual road-condition survey found 27% of the state's highways in poor condition in 2005--the highest percentage in 20 years--while 24% of roads were in only fair condition.

Only 49% of roads were in excellent (26%) or good (23%) condition. That's down from 62% in excellent (32%) or good (30%) condition in 2000, the newspaper reported.

"The condition of Wyoming's highways over the last couple of decades has been nothing short of superb," Cox said. But he said the state now needs to determine what priority it's going to place on the highway system in the future.

Cox said the department has proposed revisiting the issue of earmarking more mineral revenue for the state's highway system.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal had recommended that the legislature appropriate an additional $105 million in this year's session for highway projects, but the legislature only approved $75 million, according to the newspaper.

"I think we're seeing now that we should have appropriated the $105 million," Gov. Freudenthal said. "If we had more funding, we could get more projects done, it's just that simple."

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Casper, chairman of the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee, says it's obvious that highways are crucial in the state in terms of moving people and products and sustaining industries and tourism.

"I don't think there's one thing that's going to solve the problem," Barrasso said. "The federal government's not doing its job. Wyoming has stepped up, the legislature stepped up and put extra money in for this biennium. There is no one silver bullet that's going to solve the whole problem, the inflation, the skyrocketing cost of materials."

"In my opinion," said Rep. Pete Anderson, R-Pine Bluffs, chairman of the Joint Revenue Committee, "we'll have to increase the amount from federal mineral royalties to highways."

"The highways, and local governments, the counties and the city's streets and highways are in need of additional revenues, because of inflationary costs, as much as anything," Anderson said. "That's our mode of transportation in this state."

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