Road construction began this summer at Fishing Bridge in Cody, Wyoming. (Photo by Neal Herbert, National Park Service.)

The head of Wyoming’s Department of Transportation urged Congress to adequately fund rural roads as they work toward passing the country’s infrastructure spending bill this year.

Congress is working to pass a bi-partisan infrastructure bill that would authorize the Financing American Surface Transportation (FAST) Act for another five years or more. The bill, which provides funding and oversight of the Highway Trust Fund, expires at the end of September 2020. Without the funding, witnesses testified, projects funded with federal money would come to a stand-still.

In a hearing July 10 before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee, K. Luke Reiner, the director of Wyoming’s DOT, testified that adequately funding rural roads was not only necessary for those more rural states, but for the country as well.

“Significant federal investment in highways and transportation in rural states is a sound policy that must be continued, for many reasons,” Reiner said in his prepared testimony. “Consider truck movements from West Coast ports to Chicago or the East Coast. These and other movements traverse states like ours and benefit people and commerce in the metropolitan areas at both ends of the journey. In Wyoming, about 90 percent of trucks on Interstate 80 have origins and destinations beyond Wyoming’s borders. This is clearly national transportation and warrants federal investment.”

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Highways in rural states aren’t just a lifeline for small communities. They also serve the nation’s agriculture and energy production industries provide access to national parks, and facilitate military readiness, he said.

Increasingly, he said, rural states have dwindling tax bases to help pay for those roads and bridges, despite the fact that the infrastructures in those states, like the rest of the country, are aging.

“We have very few people to support each lane mile of federal-aid highway even as preserving this aging, nationally connected system is expensive,” he said. “Yet, citizens from our states contribute to the effort significantly. Nationally, the per capita contribution to the Highway Account for the highway Trust Fund is approximately $117. The per capita contribution to the Highway Account attributable to rural states is much higher. In Wyoming, it is the highest of the states at $312 annually per capita to the Highway Account; North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana are the next highest.”

To add to the funding dilemma, more than half of the land in his state is federal land and therefore not subject to state and local taxes.

“The vast extent of federal lands in many western states presents a particular challenge to improving surface transportation in those states,” he said. “Idaho is well over 60 percent federal and tribal lands; Wyoming, over 50 percent; Montana, roughly one-third…. Development or use of federal lands is limited… yet, the nation’s citizens and businesses want reasonable opportunities to access and cross those lands. This is an expensive transportation proposition for sparsely populated states. Significant investment of transportation dollars by the federal government has been, and remains, a proper response, both in terms of apportionments to low population density states and in terms of direct federal programs generally referred to as the ‘Federal Lands Programs.’”

In Wyoming, he said, the state does not have the funds to maintain the roads, let alone improve them. Wyoming has “a funding deficit of $72 million to maintain current (roads and bridges) conditions.”

Reiner also asked Congress to not subject rural states to regulations inspired by problems faced in much more populace states. Rules directed at reducing traffic congestion in sparsely populated areas not only pointless, he said, but drain resources.

“Our states do not experience anything remotely resembling the congestion in large metropolitan areas, but we are still subject to the rule,” he said. “We are subject to data-related costs and management, and staff must put time in to achieve regulatory compliance. Adding such requirements to the already heavy workload of State DOTs is not appropriate for rural states like Wyoming. We have to report… how many vehicles were on the road, for example, at some point between Cody and Casper at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning. This information is not needed to combat congestion, and every dollar used to obtain the data and implement the rule is unavailable for much better use.”

Rural roads face other challenges, like wildlife mitigation and providing lifeline support to rural communities, said Carlos Braceras, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and the executive director of the Utah Department of transportation.

Sen. John Barasso, R-WY, chairman of the committee, has said he would favor and will advocate for policies that streamline environmental permit approval for major highway projects, as well as work toward long-term highway reauthorization bill measures.

Ranking member Sen. Tom Carper, D-MD, said he would insist on integrating climate change policy into the bill.

“It’s time we stop throwing good money after bad, and start investing in roads, highways, bridges and transit systems that will harness innovation and withstand the impacts of our changing climate,” he said earlier this year.

Head of AASHTO Braceras said that climate change is an important part of why federal funding is needed to work toward updating the country’s infrastructure.

“The infrastructure system that we’ve built over the last 100 years is not the infrastructure system that we’re going to need for the next 100 years,” Braceras said in his testimony. “It needs to change and we need to help it adapt.

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