Will anybody pay $30 to drive in the new I-70 toll lane?
Thirteen-mile segments opens in December
by Allen Best
IDAHO SPRINGS, Colo. – By December, drivers returning to the Front Range on weekends and holidays will have a 13-mile alternative to the usual bumper-to-bumper slog along I-70 through Idaho Springs.
For a toll of between $3 and $30, they can use an express lane, where minimum speeds of 40 to 45 mph will be guaranteed, shortening the travel time between Summit County and Denver by up to 30 minutes.
Colorado transportation planners believe this will be the first highway in the nation used primarily for recreational trips to employ tolls. For 13 miles between Empire Junction and the Twin Tunnels near Idaho Springs, the east-bound lane has been reconfigured to allow up to three lanes of traffic, now limited to two, with the inner lane being the one tolled. Federal highway officials have authorized tolls in the lane for up to 72 days a year.
Drivers in the remaining two free lanes should also find marginally faster travel as a result of the 700 to 950 drivers expected to pay the toll.
But what will the traffic bear? C-DOT estimates a range of $3 to $30. Tim Gagen, the Breckenridge town manager, says it might well vary depending upon the weather, the time of day, or even upon the urgency of a traveler in wanting to get to Denver International Airport.
“We actually think that it will be the tourists trying to get back to Denver to catch a flight or the family that doesn’t want to be stuck in traffic for an hour and a hour,” says Gagen, who also chairs the board of directors for the High Performance Transportation Enterprise, an arm of C-DOT.
Gagen says he doesn’t expect a $30 toll very often, if ever.
“That would be a fairly rare circumstance. It’s really trying to find that sweet spot to keep the traffic flowing in that toll lane but also not discouraging people from using this.”
The point is to provide choice, Gagen says. People can crawl down the highway at no added cost or pay a premium and get home quicker.
This toll lane should probably best be seen as an intermediate and local solution to I-70 congestion. With traffic flow improved through the Idaho Springs bottleneck on weekends, the even greater challenge of the Eisenhower Tunnel will become more glaring, says Tim Mauck, a commissioner in Clear Creek County. In time, he says, the traffic slow-down from Eisenhower Tunnel may back up into the towns of Summit County.
Adding new traffic capacity through Eisenhower Tunnel will cost much more, perhaps $2 billion, compared to the $70 million of this stop-gap highway widening through Clear Creek County.
Mauck makes the case that this toll lane should be used as a laboratory to see how well self-driving vehicles and connected vehicles can increase traffic flows. “I am still doubtful about that technology,” he says, citing the unknowns of tires on ice and snow.
How much travelers will pay for tolls might also have a bearing on future discussions of high-speed rail in the I-70 corridor. Two studies in recent years have delivered extremely high costs for high-speed rail in the I-70 corridor.
But a study commissioned by C-DOT two years ago delivered the somewhat surprising news that revenues would lag construction costs by just $4 billion. That’s still a substantial gap, however.
That study, however, was loaded with assumptions. “This study (of the express lane) will get you closer to real data, the price people are willing to pay,” says Mauck. One theory to be tested is whether people will pay more to save time during their recreational pursuits, as compared to daily commuting.
Potential revenues from transit-oriented development might provide more revenue yet to narrow the gap.
“It’s not a long-term solution,” says Mauck of the new traffic lane. “I think C-DOT recognizes that. It’s an interim solution at best.”
Mechanics of the express lane administration have mostly been worked out. Vehicles pulling trailers will not be allowed. Those drivers who choose to use the toll lane can either purchase transponders in advance or be billed based on their license plates.
C-DOT already has sophisticated traffic-counting technology, both at Golden, on the outskirts of Denver, and at the Eisenhower Tunnel. One person who already monitors access onto the highway from the offices at Eisenhower Tunnel will make decisions about tolling prices.
At a public call-in session in late September conducted by C-DOT, one person wanted to know whether tolls would end once the $70 million has been recovered?
A C-DOT employee said no, because that’s not entirely the point. Sure, the government agency would like more money. It has the same funding for highways as it did in 1970, when adjusted for inflation. But more to the point, tolls are a device to moderate use of the toll lane. By diverting traffic to a third lane, however, all motorists will gain.