Wyoming, like the rest of the country, has an infrastructure problem.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, nearly 7 percent of Wyoming’s bridges are structurally deficient. The state’s drinking water needs come to an estimated $458 million. Almost 100 dams in the state present a high hazard to the public. And Wyoming schools currently have an estimated capital expenditure gap of $149 million.
According to a White House fact sheet released earlier this spring, Wyoming has incurred $5 billion in damages from extreme weather events since 2010, with dams and irrigation channels — particularly in places like Goshen County — highly vulnerable to even greater damage.
Despite funding from the 2020 CARES Act to bolster rural broadband infrastructure in-state, Wyoming’s needs remain significant, with large, remote swaths of the state still lacking reliable high-speed internet.
State lawmakers, however, find themselves tasked with cutting spending, not investing, thanks to a protracted state revenue crisis.
The massive infrastructure bill currently working its way through Congress — the American Jobs Plan — could bridge much of the gap, according to officials, and is already beginning to dominate conversations within the Wyoming Legislature.
Executive branch officials too are looking toward the potential federal windfall with an ambitious eye. Earlier this spring, Gov. Mark Gordon’s office developed a “brainstorming” document containing numerous conceptual uses for the funds, ranging from large-scale capital projects to smaller environmental or economic development initiatives.The possibilities cover numerous agencies, and range from wildfire mitigation projects and the construction of a commercial scale carbon capture utilization and storage facility to boring a tunnel under Teton Pass, financing an $80 million replacement for the aging La Prele Dam, and constructing family resource centers at schools, among other ideas.
The biggest need can be found within the Wyoming Department of Transportation, whose fiscal woes in recent years are a well-trodden topic in Cheyenne.
For years, state highway officials have warned lawmakers that rising inflation, declines in fuel tax revenues and stagnant levels of state and federal funding have threatened the state’s transportation system to a point where it would cost roughly $135 million more annually just to maintain current sub-par conditions.
Last fall, WYDOT officials upped the ante, releasing a study outlining a budget shortfall millions of dollars larger than previously anticipated, just as the Legislature was seeking to cut funding to all state agencies in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and declining energy revenues.
Federal funding remains the most critical piece of WYDOT’s finances. In a presentation to lawmakers at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs earlier this month, WYDOT officials noted that federal funding still remains the highway system’s greatest benefactor, covering 58% of its annual operating budget.
Though the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works passed bipartisan highway funding bills several times under the leadership of former chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, Congress has not authorized an increase to federal highway funding since 2015. Last week, Sen. Cynthia Lummis — who currently sits on EPW — joined her colleagues in advancing another highway bill out of committee proposing increases in federal funding that, if adopted, would represent a key component of Biden’s infrastructure plan.
The anticipated 34-percent increase in funding from the highway bill alone, however, may not be enough to bring WYDOT’s budget into balance. Fuel taxes — which fund 11 percent of Wyoming’s highway program — have remained flat and, with the rise of more fuel-efficient vehicles, have provided the state diminishing returns. Wyoming lawmakers have also declined to pursue other measures to raise money for WYDOT, and even delayed introducing a slight increase in vehicle registration fees — designed to pay for an upgrade to the state’s decades-obsolete record keeping system — until this spring’s legislative session.
Barring a massive spike in one-time funding from the federal government under the American Jobs Plan, it will likely remain up to Wyoming officials to come up with a home-grown solution.
Finding a sustainable solution to funding WYDOT — rather than the potential for one-time dollars — is the agency’s priority, WYDOT Director Luke Reiner told WyoFile. Under federal funding models, his department is only permitted to spend those dollars on projects that have already been approved as part of the State Transportation Improvement Plan, giving the agency little flexibility to fund more than what it already planned to spend.
Barring free money from the federal government, the only solution — WYDOT officials told lawmakers — is for the state to find a way to increase its own share of funding.
“The key component in all of this is state dollars,” Dennis Byrne, WYDOT’s chief financial officer, told lawmakers earlier this month. “You have to have state dollars to match those federal dollars. And for us it’s not federal dollars. The concern is the state dollar. We have stopped applying for certain federal grants simply because we don’t have the state dollars to be able to match them.”
“We clearly have our own budgetary challenges, there’s no question,” U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney said in a call with Wyoming reporters last month. “I know it’s something that the Legislature and the governor have been working very closely on. And, we need to find ways that we can both protect our fossil fuel industry (so) that we can encourage technological advances and things like carbon capture and clean coal technology. But while we do that, we’ve also got to find ways that we can diversify and make sure that the economy can continue to grow.”
Before it can be applied in the state, the infrastructure bill has to pass the U.S. Senate, where it currently faces numerous challenges, including from Wyoming’s delegation.
Republicans are pushing for a narrower definition of infrastructure than what President Joe Biden’s version of the bill includes. Senate Republicans unveiled a $928 billion counter proposal Thursday that includes roads, bridges, railroads, broadband and highways. Many of those dollars would come from old, repurposed funds. The measure was quickly criticized by the Biden Administration for its relatively low levels of new spending.
“This proposal is fully paid for, does not need to have any raises in taxes, and avoids the big threat to the economy right now, which is inflation,” Barrasso said in a press conference announcing the bill Thursday.
While many expected a deal to be signed in the coming weeks — potentially giving time for state lawmakers to consider how to appropriate it either in this year’s special session or in next year’s budget session — a breakdown in negotiations between Republicans and the White House could prove challenging.
Particularly with the threat of inflation looming.
“If that falls apart, I think things are going to get complicated,” Charles Ziegler, an adviser in Barrasso’s office, told members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs earlier this month. “The price tag is going to go way up, and then you’re going to lose bipartisanship.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.