Following a third straight year of double-digit pedestrian deaths, a Wyoming nonprofit seeks $40 million from federal stimulus funds for construction projects that it says would resolve neglected needs and dovetail with Wyoming’s priorities for American Rescue Plan Act money.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation, however, is less keen on new construction. The department must find the funding to maintain its existing system before entertaining expansion, Luke Reiner, WYDOT’s director said.
Wyoming Pathways identified more than $100 million in construction projects — to build sidewalks, paths, crosswalks and bicycle lanes — through a state survey the nonprofit group said is the first of its kind.
The nonprofit group’s two-year grant proposal would fund some of the 134 potential projects around Wyoming — from safe school crossings in Cody to paved sidewalks in LaGrange. The projects fit Gov. Mark Gordon’s outline for spending ARPA money to help create “a future where Wyoming can thrive,” Wyoming Pathways states.
The initiative follows at least Wyoming’s third year in a row in which vehicle-caused pedestrian deaths ran into the double digits. Cars and trucks killed a dozen people in 2021, including a teenager walking to school in Cheyenne, one of seven persons killed by vehicles in that city last year.
A grant program could boost pedestrian and bicyclist safety in a state that’s been criticized for not making their safety more of a priority, the nonprofit said. The Wyoming Department of Transportation, which receives almost $340 million from the federal government annually, earmarks less than 1% to statewide pedestrian and cycle safety, the group says. That’s less than half of what Congress set as a standard years ago when distributing federal highway funds.
“There is a huge … interest in nearly every community in Wyoming to improve active transportation options for people to bike and walk safely and comfortably,” said Tim Young, executive director of the pathways group.
“The survey is a good start,” he said. “But it’s clear we only touched a portion of the high-quality projects that are already identified.”
The survey pinpointed more than $100 million in active transportation projects that have undergone some stage of planning, Young said. Other projects in the conceptual state “could easily double that,” he said.
Active transportation fits with Gordon’s outline for the expenditure of ARPA funds, Young said, but is not yet included in the governor’s proposal to spend those funds. “We really have uncovered an untracked community development need — it’s part of [Gordon’s] ‘thriving in the future.’”
$1 billion from ARPA
The governor has launched his legislative agenda for allocating about $500 million of the $1 billion in ARPA money, but there’s no $40 million active transportation grant element in the mix. Appropriations committee member Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) said “prospects are slim” that an independent $40 million request would make it through the budget session this year.
Gordon is reserving the other half of the ARPA funds for savings or distribution later. His office received requests for a total of $4 billion in projects.
Nevertheless, Young said he will push the proposal. Either the Wyoming Business Council, which runs the state’s Main Street program, or the Wyoming Department of Transportation would administer the proposed grants program, Young said.
Active transportation invigorates communities, he said. “You see friends, get outdoors, get some exercise.”
Wyoming needs that infrastructure, not 40-mph thruways bisecting towns on which “people drive by sitting on their wallets,” he said. “Investments in the public realm are frequently followed by investments on the private side.”
Twenty cities, 15 towns, five counties, 80 residents and eight nonprofits responded to the Wyoming Pathways survey. Many of the projects are “ready to go,” the organization said.
New shared-use pathways and greenways was the category of project that topped the survey. There were 121 proposals for those, followed by 81 “Safe Routes to Schools” plans, plus on-road bicycle networks, sidewalks, crosswalks and main street upgrades.
In Cody, the school district wants a crosswalk on Bighorn Avenue near a middle school. “A child got hit crossing to go to school,” one survey respondent wrote.
Dayton and Ranchester want a 6-mile path connecting the two towns. Mills wants a main street common area. Lander has identified 10 school-route safety proposals.
“I am just a mother,” one respondent from the Saratoga/Encampment area wrote, asking for paths “where children could walk, ride bikes and recreate.” In LaGrange, population about 300, residents want paved sidewalks so “all people, even those confined to a wheel chair, can get around.”
$2.5 or $6.7 million?
The state doles out some $2.5 million annually to communities through its Transportation Alternatives Program, said Jordan Achs, a WYDOT spokeswoman. In FY 2019, which ended in June of that year, WYDOT distributed about $2.7 million for eight path projects and one planning effort, agency figures show.
League of American Bicyclists ranked Wyoming last among states for its cycle efforts in 2019, a fall from 11th place only a decade earlier. Among the shortcomings, the state did not meet the League’s threshold of spending at least 2% of federal transportation dollars on bicycle and pedestrian safety, an amount suggested by Congress in recent transportation legislation.
WYDOT’s budget for FY 2022 anticipates $338 million in federal funds; 2% of that would amount to $6.7 million.
Wyoming Pathways’ believes the state agency doesn’t adequately consider public proposals to use federal funds for pedestrian and cyclist projects. WYDOT runs its federally funded State Transportation Improvement Program by selecting projects internally, then accepting required public comment, Young said.
But WYDOT doesn’t consider those public comments meaningfully, Young said. WYDOT should consider public comments at the beginning of its annual program review, he said.
WYDOT chief Reiner disagreed with Young and said he tells district engineers “you’ve got to get input.” He again referenced his budget, saying “the wishes [of STIP commenters] are tempered by the reality of our fiscal resources.”
Pedestrian and bicycle safety are not being ignored, Reiner said. “We’re the Department of Transportation for all modes of transportation,” he said. “So that’s our going-in position.”
What comes out may be a different story. A consultant told Reiner his agency faced a $350 million “funding gap” after Reiner sought an analysis of finances, requirements and goals a few years ago, the director said.
“We’ve got to match revenue with expenditures,” he said, outlining WYDOT’s top priority, “and so people need to pay their own way.” The agency’s second priority is emergency repairs and third is “preserving what we have.”
“That’s where we’re focusing our efforts,” he said.
“At the very bottom [of the priority list] is expansion of the system,” he said. “It’s not wise for us … to expand the system we can’t preserve.”
When WYDOT reconstructs a state road, that’s when it considers building associated sidewalks and paths. President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure law will require states to develop a “complete streets” plan for the state, Young said. But WYDOT agency doesn’t mend, keep up or patch non-motorized routes.
“On bike paths and these pathways … we don’t maintain them,” Reiner said. “You always have to work with a local community to ensure that they’re maintained.”
Moving cars from A to B
Automobiles and their unimpeded flow appear to be most important to WYDOT.
“The task and purpose of a state highway is to connect communities, support the economy of the state, make lives better,” Reiner said. And so, we’ve got to accommodate lots of people on those systems, but primarily the function is to get cars from point A to point B.”
That’s apparent on Highway 22 between Jackson and the bedroom community of Victor, Idaho, a route Reiner called “the busiest two lanes in the state.” It could be a case study.
Where Highway 22 passes through Wilson, the speed limit is 25 mph. Some village residents seek a signalized crosswalk — one that could be activated by a pedestrian — to enhance safety.
WYDOT has resisted. An agency study in 2018 found the average speed through the town’s 25 mph zone was 34 mph. “Posted speed is too low,” the study said. “Recommended speed limit = 40.”
The speed limit remains 25 mph and WYDOT is participating in, but not fully funding, several safety projects in the neighborhood. Those include two underpasses (there’s one in Wilson already) and a pedestrian/bicycle bridge.
But the agency doesn’t support the signalized crossing proposal along the oversubscribed commuter route where traffic can be stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper. “Any proposal that is a detriment to traffic flow and increased queuing on WY 22 is not acceptable to WYDOT,” the agency wrote in response to the idea
That matches the sentiment of drivers, Reiner said.
“We get calls all the time” from Highway 22 drivers, Reiner said, “saying you’ve got to do something about getting us going faster.
“I’m thankful to the pathways group for providing us a list,” he said of the new survey. “Alternate transportation forms we think are really key and will support to the maximum possible extent that we can. If the Legislature deems it important enough to have a grant program to support pathways, we will absolutely execute it.”
Lawmakers in 2015 passed a vulnerable-user law requiring vehicles to give cyclists 3 feet of space when passing them while both are traveling in the same direction. The separation is required when the bicycle “is operating lawfully” and “when space allows.”
But better sidewalks, bike lanes and street crossings would not have prevented some of the pedestrian deaths last year. One victim, for example, was a homeless man who apparently went to sleep under a semi-truck’s trailer, according to the Cheyenne Police Department.
He died at the scene after the truck’s driver started up his rig and drove over him. In another Cheyenne incident, police say a vehicle killed a man while he was crossing a street in the dark in an unlit area where there was no crosswalk. The pedestrian’s impairment may have been a factor.
In a city that saw an average of 2.5 pedestrian deaths a year over the previous four years, the seven in 2021 drew attention. But they were not concentrated in one problem area, Alexandra Farkas, a spokeswoman for Cheyenne Police, said. While a variety of circumstances were involved in the fatalities, distractions like cell phones are worrying, she said.
“Everyone seems to be in a hurry,” she told WyoFile. Pedestrians need to be wary. “We believe safety is a shared responsibility,” she said.
Wyoming Highway Patrol worries about distractions, too. “Cell-phone use — that is a big concern of mine,” said Col. Kebin Haller, who regularly files a statewide safety report — including incidents in cities and towns — with the Wyoming Transportation Commission. He reiterated elementary advice for pedestrians and cyclists.
“Individuals should be wearing something that is visible,” Haller said. Also, Wyoming law states cyclists must ride “as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable.”
Even at marked crosswalks, “pedestrians need to stop and look both ways,” Haller said.