Hardening the main artery for
mountain resorts of Colorado
by Allen Best
Limited tolling is being talked about as a way to improve the flow of east-bound traffic on from the mountains to Denver on Colorado’s Interstate 70 on Sunday afternoons and other times of high-volume traffic.
The concept, called managed lanes, has been implemented in Minneapolis, Indianapolis and other metropolitan areas. The Colorado Department of Transportation thinks managed lanes can also be used in Colorado for:
• I-25 north from Denver,
• U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder, and
• C-470 in the south metro area.
The new – and temporary – lane on I-70 would stretch from Empire Junction, where traffic on Highway 40 merges with the I-70 traffic but without added lane capacity. It would continue to Floyd Hill, where the existing two lanes expand to three lanes on into Denver. The total distance is 12 miles.
Part of this bottleneck will be eliminated this year by creating a third bore at the Twin Tunnels, just east of Idaho Springs, for east-bound traffic. C-DOT found $100 million in its budget to widen the tunnel, accommodating three lanes. That is expected to be done by December, maybe earlier.
Prices for use of the I-70 express lane would be set with the goal of encouraging use of traffic flowing at about 45 mph. Variable tolling, the concept in question, is knotty. If the fee is too low, it just becomes another congested lane. Too high and nobody will use it. But there is some certainty from week to week and month to month. The same concept is already used on the high-occupancy vehicle lanes in Denver.
A different system, called dynamic tolling, adjusts rates in accordance with real-time conditions, such as hour to hour. In Minneapolis, tolls have ranged from 25 cents to $8 during one epic snowstorm.
Tolls would be assessed by transponders or by photos of license plates, similar to the way traffic is charged on Colorado’s existing toll road, E-470. There will be no pitching of quarters into roadside baskets, said Bemelen.
While no pen has been put to paper yet, says Bemelen, C-DOT roughly estimates infrastructure costs of the express lanes at $30 million. Work would take 18 to 20 months to completion. Thanks to the existence of fiber optics, extensive installation of monitoring cameras would be a relatively minor component.
The idea has been shared with elected officials in Idaho Springs and Clear Creek County, who were flown to Minneapolis to see operations there. “They all had concerns, but all were duly impressed by what they saw in Minneapolis,” observes Bemelen.
Tim Mauck, chairman of the Clear Creek County commissioners, was among those who went to Minneapolis. “It’s an interesting concept,” he says. “It deserves further research, modeling and discussion in regards to its effectiveness in the I-70 mountain corridor.”
One concern was whether emergency responders could reach traffic accidents, as they commonly now use the shoulders when traffic is congested. But, if 45 mph speeds are guaranteed in the express lane, that works for them.
Mauck doubts that managed lanes can be a long-term solution. “My fear is that 10 years down the road we will have three lanes of congested traffic sitting in Clear Creek County, and the quality of life, not only of other Coloradans who travel that corridor, but also our residents, will be adversely affected.”
While C-DOT representatives originally said they hoped to see the I-70 upgrade under construction in 2014, Mauck believes 2015 should be the earliest. He will oppose rushing, as he believes Clear Creek County is being adversely effected by the hurry to create a third east-bound lane at the Twin Tunnels. The express lane, if it is to happen, must be “fully thought through.”