CDOT to open Interstate 70 toll lane in time for ski season
A new express lane stretching from Empire to Floyd Hill will be up and running this winter, in hopes of reducing Interstate 70 congestion during peak travel times. The lane will extend for 10 miles on the interior shoulder of eastbound I-70, operating on weekends with a fluctuating toll rate depending on traffic delays.
Peter Kozinski, a project manager with the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the express lane would connect to a three-lane expansion of highway on Floyd Hill that was added in 2013. The stretch of road between Empire and Floyd Hill was selected to reduce the heavy traffic volumes that enter the I-70 from U.S. 40, creating a buildup of traffic.
While the 2013 expansion of the Twin Tunnels eliminated one traffic bottleneck, Trey Rogers, a board member with the High-Performance Transportation Enterprise Program, hopes that the toll lane will keep cars moving through the corridor.
“CDOT is focused on building small projects with immediate impact,” Rogers said. “We’re pursuing smaller, lower cost pieces that really do have an effect on travel time.”
CDOT expects to open the lane as a toll road 72 days out of the year, targeted at busy ski season and summer holiday weekends. Otherwise, the lane will function as a shoulder for safety and snowplowing purposes.
While a reduction in driving time is guaranteed with the express lane, the addition should also help reduce congestion in the existing two free lanes. Amy Ford, CDOT Communications Director, said the lane should reduce drive times by at least 30 minutes for those who opt to pay, with a minimum speed of 45 miles-per-hour.
“Obviously those who are travelling in the lane will receive a benefit,” Ford said. “There’s a latent demand issue happening in that corridor. If we see traffic improve, we see more people opting to go up.”
With a target capacity for the express lane set at 750 to 900 cars per hour, Ford hopes that drivers who opt to use it will relieve congestion on the rest of the interstate. Ford noted that traffic speeds in the corridor begin to slow when 2,000 vehicles per hour occupy the road, with 3,000 vehicles per hour resulting in stop-and-go traffic.
“We want to try to get enough people in there to impact traffic volumes in another lane,” Ford said. “The goal is to pull people into express lane and forestall the inevitable that will happen when you see congestion at its peak.”
TAKING THE TOLL
The price of the toll will adjust according to demand, with an expected range of $3 to $30. Ford said that earlier in the day, a lower toll would be posted to draw more people into the express lane. As the lane approaches capacity, the toll rate would increase to prevent congestion.
“The objective is to provide for people who choose to use this lane a reliable trip,” Kozinski said.
Toll charges will be posted on signs near the toll road entrance, as well as on CoTrip.org. While CDOT encourages drivers to use a transponder — an ExpressToll tag attached to their dashboard — those without will be billed a slightly higher amount using license plate information.
The lane will have some restrictions, as it is effectively a shoulder and is a foot narrower than a regular lane. Trucks and trailers will not be able to use the express lane, as well as vehicles with more than two axles or a length exceeding 25 feet.
“Our analysis suggests this lane will not sacrifice any safety capabilities when it’s in use,” said Megan Castle, HPTE Communications Manager.
CDOT can opt to turn off the lane in icy conditions, or to allow emergency responders to respond quickly to an accident. Castle said law enforcement will help enforce proper use of the lane.
The full cost of the project is $72 million, with HPTE taking out a $25 million loan to help finance the project. CDOT expects that the loan will be paid off using tolls in upcoming years, with the remaining balance of the project covered by CDOT funding.
“The lane ought to generate revenue to pay down the cost of building it,” Rogers said. “As revenue has gone down, we have to find ways to pay for the expansion.”
He noted that as both the state and federal gas taxes have remained unchanged since the early ’90s, CDOT has become more creative in finding ways to improve roads on a budget. Under current TABOR laws, the department would not be able to raise the state gas tax without voter approval.
“The cost of adding a full-service lane in the corridor is expensive; we couldn’t afford that, but we could play with cost of adding shoulder,” Ford said. “This is really an operational change, not a capital construction project. As we started examining what we could do for a quick, shorter term fix, this came to mind.”
With most of the paving already finished, the project should be completed by mid-December. In the future, CDOT will look to installing a toll lane on I-70 westbound, once funds are available.
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