WYOMING HIGHWAYS….Today? Tomorrow?
Governor Matt Mead, the Legislative Joint Interim Revenue Committee, and a number of state organizations support increasing the state’s gas tax by 10 cents a gallon. How to finance highway maintenance and improvement has been ongoing and debated for nearly fifteen years. The last gas tax increase—5 cents per gallon—occurred in 1998.
The questions before the citizens of Wyoming relate to the quality of highways and who can and should pay to keep them maintained and improved. To begin, it is too simplistic to say that compared to the cumulative rate of inflation since 1995—some 180%--Wyoming’s current Department of Transportation (DOT) budget is fine. Using the Wyoming Cost of Living (WCLI) measure doesn’t work for several reasons. First, costs associated with highway maintenance and construction are greater. According to the Department of Transportation, diesel fuel prices, concrete, etc. have all increased more than the WCLI. For example, base materials/equipment for highway construction are up 7.6% this year while WCLI is 2.4%. Second, the condition and quality of our highways is declining. We used to be number one in the nation; we are now around tenth overall, but our interstate conditions come in at 25th place.
Safe and well maintained Wyoming highways are essential to Wyoming. The movement of people and goods defines our economy. If roads progressively deteriorate, as they are, the state’s economy ultimately suffers. So, too, will safety for our citizens and the traveling public given that 30% of Wyoming road fatalities relate to bad roads. Lastly, the state’s budget is impacted as well. When resurfacing is delayed too long, complete reconstruction becomes a reality, which essentially means a greater expense. In fact, DOT states that for every dollar not spent on essential maintenance, the cost for complete reconstruction increases to between four and eight dollars.
So then just how bad are Wyoming roads? Actually today they are OK, but tomorrow and in the years to come the story will be different. This is graphically shown as follows for the 6750 miles of roads in Wyoming, where over a third will be in poor condition in five years.Poor Road Conditions
2012 2017 Interstates 9%/82 miles 17%/155 miles
National Highways 13%/260 miles 32%/640 miles
Wyoming Highways 35%/1344 miles 39%/1498 miles
TOTALS 25%/1686 miles 34%/2293 miles
in poor condition in poor condition
The Department of Transportation estimates $134.5 million more is needed yearly just keep even. Some may say that DOT is bloated and inefficient, but in reality the bids for highway work are competitive. Others may say with state reserves of over a billion, there is plenty to cover the highways—fair enough but then how will the state in the future pay for increased health care costs or the development of additional storage. Still others may say it’s an I-80 problem, but in reality the poor road conditions, as indicated above, are greater on Wyoming’s non interstate highways and non federal highways.
The ten cent increase in a gallon of gas is a viable solution. Ten cents equals to around a 3% increase. The ten cents will raise $71 million a year, not all of the $134.5 million that is needed. The increase takes Wyoming’s total to twenty four cents a gallon, comparable to our neighbors.Gas Tax
Colorado 22¢ 22¢
Idaho 25¢ 25¢
Montana 27¢ 27¢
Nebraska 23.5¢ 27¢
South Dakota 21¢ 24¢
Utah 24.5¢ 24.5¢
Wyoming 14¢ 14¢
As observed from the Governor’s Office research, Wyoming’s effective gas tax rate since 1998 has gone from 23% to about 4.5% in 2012. In terms of WCLI, the Wyoming tax (or user fee) has lost more than half of its value/purchasing power during the same timeframe.
Testimony at the Revenue Committee’s meeting on December 2 from opponents targeted the challenges of living on a ranch and driving miles to town or being retired and on a fixed income. These were heartfelt stories, but the impacts of rising utility costs or groceries bills or doctor visits have similar bearings as well. In summation, Wyoming citizens and businesses need and use roads. Keeping our roads in good condition is a shared responsibility. The ten cent user tax is practical and deserves the support of the Wyoming State Legislature.Bill Schilling, President
Wyoming Business Alliance
145 S. Durbin St., Ste. 101
Casper, WY 82601
BIG BURN REALITY FACING WYOMING AND THE WEST?
July 2012 - Guest Column
In 1910 a huge fire -- prompted by low humidity, drought conditions, and high winds -- struck eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana with tremendous force. Whether that may occur again may well be a question of not if, but when.
Here in Wyoming there have been seven significant fires thus far. The toll is ominous: 233,300 acres, 365 square miles and over 3,500 firefighters. In western Wyoming, the Fontenelle fire was causing industry shutdowns of $8 million a day. All this and it is just mid July. If the weather remains hot and dry with scant rainfall, things will no doubt get a lot worse. In Colorado, unlike Wyoming so far, the human toll has been much worse. The Waldo Canyon fire (Colorado Springs) and the High Park fire (Fort Collins) have consumed over 600 homes. Do the math - homeowner losses of about $240 million.
Whether it’s your home, barn, livestock, personal injury or death, the fires menacing the intermountain west pose short term dangers and long term rebuilding. Local, state and federal governments are challenged by the costs of fighting fires at a time when budgets are tight with no end in sight - similar sadly to the reality that diseased and dying forests from beetle kill will continue to be a problem of epic proportions.
Today, just 102 years after the infamous three million acre (size of Connecticut) big burn fire with the loss of 100 firefighters and destruction of three towns (read Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn), our region faces not just drought stricken national forests, but ferocious beetle infestation. Not much can be done about the weather. As for the beetle kill and forest fires, inaccessible wilderness lands and road less areas (de facto wilderness), and stubborn and arduous environmental policies, have made beetle control and firefighting difficult, dangerous and expensive. In Wyoming just one of our national forests - the Black Hills - has a fighting chance of survival (due to sound timber management/harvesting practices). The others have simply become tinder boxes; mitigation actions by federal agencies remain at a standstill due in large part to conflicting environmental and forest management policies.
I remember well the fires in Yellowstone and northwest Wyoming in 1988. The conditions were dry but beetle infestation was not that severe. At one point the fire headwall in Yellowstone was fifty miles in length. Today with drought conditions as well as beetle infestation approaching 70% or more who is to say there could be several fire headwalls of fifty miles each in several states at one time - stranding people, livestock, and wildlife and destroying entire towns in its wake.
When you drive west from Casper toward Yellowstone or southwest from Laramie the beetle infestation is startling. Ten to fifteen years ago the epidemic was hardly noticeable. Today the searing blight of grey forests is common throughout the intermountain west and marching toward the Pacific Northwest. For those who have built homes or resorts with scenic views, the values of their hard work and investments are at risk. Pause as you sing in America the Beautiful “for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.” Maybe someone will amend the phrase to “from tarnished and burned mountains and lost home values, recreation opportunities, and healthy wildlife.”
Bill Schilling, President
Wyoming Business Alliance
145 S. Durbin St., Ste. 101
Casper, WY 82601
Past Blog Entries
Understanding Taxes and Spending Constraints
Address the Essentials
Flexible Spending Accounts Must Stay
75,000 Reasons to be for Flexible Health Spending Accounts
Diversification is the Issue . . . At All Levels
Economic Lessons for Wyoming
Lessons Learned, Decisions to Make
Let's Get Healthcare Reform Right
Leadership Wyoming Letter to the Editor