CHEYENNE – The Wyoming Legislature in 2020 could see at least one bill to fund wildlife crossing projects across the state without diverting money from other construction projects.
The Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee was in Gillette on Tuesday, and spent hours discussing the impact wildlife has on road safety.
Finding ways to divert game from roadways through wildlife crossings isn’t just a way to protect the state’s game population. It also could save hundreds of thousands of dollars – and the lives of Wyoming drivers.
Between 2013 and 2017, 12,275 of the 54,882 crashes on Wyoming roads resulting in damaged property were caused by wildlife. Animal-caused accidents resulted in 1% of all fatal accidents in that timeframe and 2% of all accidents with injuries.
“These projects are 80-90% effective, and they reduce the cost (to drivers),” said Shelby Carlson, chief engineer with the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
But while wildlife crossings – whether in the form of bridges, tunnels or other diversion methods – are effective, finding the money for them is the major issue.
WYDOT has a lengthy list of projects it has developed with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that span the entire state. But the price tag for just the 10 most vital projects, out of the more than 240 identified by the state, is currently estimated at between $197 million and $256 million.
WYDOT is able to do short-term fixes at lower cost for those 10 projects, along with the other couple hundred across the state, Carlson said. But eventually, if Wyoming wants to create safer roadways, those projects will need to be addressed with an eye toward the long term.
A major issue with financing the projects is the requirements of many grants, whether federal or through the nonprofit sector, for the state to produce some percentage of the funding for a project.
Carlson said there have been multiple instances when a grant-funded project either needed to be delayed due to a lack of funds or money from another project was diverted to allow WYDOT to secure grant funding.
“As we start to go out for more of these build grants, what’s happening to us is we’re getting some big grants and they require that state match,” Carlson said. “As we put in for more of these big contracts and big grants, it’s getting much tighter for us to make that match (with state funds).”
The committee bandied about several ideas on how the state could create a pool of money separate from WYDOT general fund appropriations to be drawn for matching funds.
Members took an informal straw poll and decided to ask Legislative Service Office staff to investigate potential draft legislation for several potential revenue streams, including creating a voluntary conservation stamp on state fishing and hunting licenses and an option to donate to the fund when renewing a driver’s license or car registration.
One idea rejected in the straw poll was from Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, who wanted to look into taking spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors and storing them in Wyoming. The accompanying billions the federal government would pay the state for storage could help with this and other financial woes, he said.
Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan, proposed using any created pool of money as a way to raise funding on the bond market to tackle multiple projects at once. But that idea wasn’t part of the informal vote, and could be brought back up during a subsequent committee meeting.