Get creative Carbon County

WYDOT says it does not have the money to open Battle Highway earlier

 

Erik Gantt

John Farr, left, questions Pat Persson, standing, about WYDOTs emergency planning as Senator Larry Hicks, seated far right, listens at the open house on opening Battle Highway earlier.

"It's time to suck it up and get creative folks," said Sen. Larry Hicks at last week's public meeting in Encampment on opening Battle Highway (WYO 70) earlier in the year.

Hicks' statement was made after Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) District Engineer Pat Persson showed that WYDOT's budget will not allow for opening WYO 70 earlier or keep it open all year.

Eighteen citizens were in attendance as were eight WYDOT employees, Carbon County Commissioners Sue Jones and John Espy and Hicks.

The main concerns brought up by citizens at the meeting included:

• The opening of WYO 70 should be higher priority than the Snowy Range Road (WYO 130) because Baggs needs backup emergency services.

• Lost revenue for businesses in the North Platte and Little Snake River valleys.

• The use of WYO 70 as an alternative emergency route for I-80 in case the bridges at Fort Steele are damaged or flooded.

"I think your priorities need to change here in servicing us before the Snowy, because the Snowy can wait. We can't wait a lot of times," Helen Weiland with South Central Wyoming Emergency Services said. Weiland said that there are multiple ways for emergency services to to get to Laramie from the Platte Valley, but there is only one way to Baggs, WYO 70.


Sandy Martin, representing the Encampment/Riverside Merchant's Association said she has been working to get WYO 70 open year-round since 1987. The concerns Martin voiced were about the financial benefits for merchants in the Platte Valley and the service needs of the Little Snake valley's ranches and cabin owners.

John Farr, president of the of the Battle Pass Scenic Byway Alliance, asked the WYDOT representatives about funding for highway emergencies and their plan for re-routing traffic in case the I-80 bridges at Fort Steele are compromised. "You have certain emergencies, the big wrecks that occur on I-80, the fires, so forth, there's always funds to take care of that. You've got to have some emergency plan for Fort Steele ... What happens if we have a flood and that bridge is out like it almost was a couple of years ago? Where does that traffic go? What's the plan?" Farr asked Persson.

Persson, and WYDOT District Maintenance Engineer Tim McGary presented the case that WYDOT does not have the funding in its budget to open WYO 70 early, or keep it open all year and that the two-lane highway is not suitable for interstate traffic if I-80 were to close.

According to Persson and McGary:

• It costs around $30,000 to open WYO 70 each year and those costs would rise if the road was opened earlier.

• WYDOT's equipment budget was cut by $400,000 this year and there will be an effective cut of $900,000 to the maintenance budget in 2016.

• WYDOT has been under a hiring freeze since 1995 and Persson has not been able to hire any additional employees since then.

• Snow removal on WYO 70 would take plows and personnel away from removing snow in both the Platte and Little Snake valleys.

• Both WYO 70 and WYO 130 were built as summer-only recreational roads and do not have the ditches, snow fences and snow storage areas necessary to keep them open through the winter.

Persson said he was concerned about opening WYO 70 earlier not only because the cost of opening the road would go up, but, "If I open it earlier on the front end and we get a major, big storm, like we did this spring, then I have two choices. I can close the road because I gotta have the plows down here where the people are, or I gotta send the crews up there to work on opening the road. I can't have them both places, I don't have that many people," he said.

According to Persson, Saratoga has six employees and four plows while Baggs has five employees and three plows. Neither the Baggs or Saratoga WYDOT facilities has a rotary snow blower.

"I did talk to the Homeland Security Office ... about funding that way ... I've tried this before with drainage and other things to see if Homeland had some money to help us out sometimes. The answer is no, that they don't," Persson said in response to emergency management concerns.

In direct response to Farr and his questions about the Fort Steele bridges McGary said, "If that actually happens, we do the same thing that happens in the winter time when we lose the road due to a storm. We route trucks through Casper ... the other one would be 70 down in Colorado. If those two bridges got wiped out, we'd be months getting those put back together ... if this road (WYO 70) happened to be open we wouldn't even consider putting interstate traffic up there, that would be suicidal. We wouldn't even talk about it."

"I have been one of WYDOT's biggest critics. I was the only one in the senate to run an amendment to kill the fuel tax, I voted against the fuel tax, because I do think there is efficiency that can be built into WYDOT," Hicks said, adding, "But let's talk about the reality of the situation. There's no money. There's no new wells unless you guys want to tax yourself."

Both Hicks and Persson asked the citizens at the meeting what ideas they have for funding the early or year-round opening of WYO 70. Persson suggested that if there were an economic benefit to the road being open longer, maybe the municipalities could fund snow removal. But, Persson noted, "We're not real keen in Wyoming. We don't like taxes. We didn't like the fuel tax."

Persson also explained that the fuel tax, which generates around $47 million, can only be used to pay contractors for their work. It cannot buy plows, be used for planning or fund WYDOT construction.

Hicks said the idea of using private contractors funded by the municipalities or a change in the Fifth Penny Tax usage intrigues him.

WYDOT has promised the county commissioners that they will research the financial implications of keeping WYO 70 open by gathering data from roads like Teton Pass in Wyoming and Rabbit Ears Pass in Colorado. They are also planning on asking the Colorado Department of Transportation where their funding comes from. WYDOT also offered to conduct a survey of southern Carbon County municipalities to gauge how important opening WYO 70 is to the public at large. WYDOT will present the financial data they obtain to the Carbon County Commissioners at a later date.

 

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