How much would you pay to ensure a speedy return from a weekend ski trip? How much to catch a flight at DIA?
The Colorado Department of Transportation will weigh these factors in upcoming weeks as it conducts test runs of a new express lane along the state’s notorious Interstate 70 Mountain Corridor.
The long-awaited I-70 Mountain Express Lane, touted as a solution to the corridor’s congestion issues, is set to open on Saturday, Dec. 12. The lane is also gaining another reputation as one of the nation’s most expensive toll roads, with a fluctuating toll rate capped at $30 for the 13-mile stretch of road, to the tune of $2.31 per mile.
While the bulk of construction work for the project is complete, the Colorado Department of Transportation is setting aside the next two weeks to test the new infrastructure, including electronic signs, license plate cameras and tolling equipment.
CDOT communications director Amy Ford said the department would also conduct a few “dry runs” to gauge toll prices, which will vary from $3 to $30 depending on demand.
“There is no other express lane built on the idea of recreational weekend travel,” she said. “Those people traveling the corridor at that time are people who have made an investment in recreation and now have an opportunity to make an investment in their travel time coming home.”
By nature, the lane would mainly target Front Range residents, who often head up to the mountains for a weekend of skiing and return east in time for the workweek. Open 73 days per year, the Express Road will function as a toll lane on summer holidays and ski-season weekends. The remainder of the year it is intended to be used as a shoulder.
“It is not a full, brand new lane. The solution is temporary in nature,” Ford said. “We hope it will give us 5 to 10 years to develop more permanent options to address issues in the corridor.”
THE PINCH POINT
The 13-mile shoulder-lane, stretching between Empire and the Veterans Memorial Twin Tunnels, is intended to address a small segment of I-70 that is particularly prone to congestion.
Not only did the eastbound lane have a shoulder to more easily construct the lane, Ford said, but the downhill direction also sees slightly worse congestion than westbound on weekends.
“People change the times of when they come up to go skiing,” she said. “(Traffic patterns) are much more consistent eastbound. You’re seeing people flush out at very particular times.”
According to CDOT’s statistics, traffic in the “pinch point” peaks between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on the weekends. However, the congestion can start as soon as 11 a.m., as skiers head off the mountain early to avoid the brunt of the traffic.
As an example, the toll sets the rate at a base of $3 for the morning. Into the afternoon, the price might jump to $8, rising to $10 by late afternoon, when traffic is densest. Then it would drop back down to a $5 toll by the evening.
“It could flow up and down within that range throughout the day,” she said. “We’ll have to see what people’s price points are. We will be working and testing all of that.”
The goal is to use the pricing to maintain a volume of 750 to 900 vehicles per hour, guaranteeing a steady speed of 45 mph. Rates of 2,000 vehicles per hour lead to reduced speeds, and 3,000 vehicles per hour results in stop-and-go-traffic. The hope is that the influx of vehicles into the toll lane would also assist with congestion in the two regular lanes, even if just by a slight amount.
The lane will be open to all two-axle vehicles under 25-feet long. The road will not serve as a high-occupancy vehicle lane, however, and all vehicles that are able to enter will be required to pay a toll, either by attaching a transponder to their dashboard or by having their license plate photographed, resulting in an increased price to account for processing.
Ford said carpooling was not incentivized because the corridor is unique in that the majority of vehicles during peak periods already carry three or more passengers. So, creating an HOV lane would not significantly change traffic patterns.
The plan came together three years ago, after a third lane was added to the twin tunnels east of Idaho Springs. The $72 million project is partially financed by state and federal funding, as well as $25 million in loans from the state’s High-Performance Transportation Enterprise that will be repaid over a seven-year period using toll revenues.
However, even after the debt is repaid, the lane will still maintain a toll for the purpose of regulating traffic. As per HPTE standards, the remaining funds must be used for improvements to the toll lane.
WHAT ABOUT SUMMIT?
So far, the Summit County community has met the plan with skepticism, most saying they would prefer to take an alternate route to avoid traffic than to pay a toll.
Summit County resident Marshall Raulerson said he would “absolutely not” use the lane.
“There’s no viable solution outside of impossibly widening the freeway to double or triple its current width or building a light rail from Denver to Summit,” he wrote on a Facebook posting seeking comment on the article topic.
Others said they would use the Express Lane under the right circumstances, such as catching a plane, or if the tolls sank beneath a deemed price.
“If I actively see the profits being funneled back into our society, meaning visible improvements that are necessary and not just luxurious, then I would be happy to comply with a reasonable toll (reasonable being a $10 maximum),” Tina Huelsmann commented on Facebook.
Summit County assistant manager Thad Noll noted that, from a tourism perspective, the lane might bring the benefit of allowing tourists to stay in the county for a longer period of time, generating more revenue.
“I think the direct impact would be people feel more comfortable coming up here and staying because the drive is not so onerous,“ he said. “Instead of leaving at 10 a.m. because of traffic, they might stay until 1 p.m.”
He added that if the lane did reduce congestion in the corridor significantly, it could help prevent traffic backups that lead to jams throughout Silverthorne, though he added the benefits “would be very peripheral.”
Ford said that while CDOT would like to expand I-70 by one or two lanes in each direction and add a train as an alternative transportation option, the state simply does not have the funds yet.
“We have a final decision document that says ‘Here’s what we would love to do to the corridor,’” she said. “However, in the short term, we wanted to do some quick-turn responses on how we could address issues in the corridor.”
CDOT currently has a $1 billion annual budget. The option to widen the I-70 corridor from the Denver through the tunnel to Vail would cost between $3 billion and $4 billion, and the addition of a train, which would require a third bore through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel, would cost a whopping $16 billion.
In a few years, Ford said, CDOT might look to add a similar express lane westbound, if they can secure the funding.