Interstate 70 express lane sees success
By the numbers:
4 percent: Amount of Interstate 70 peak period eastbound traffic captured by the new toll lane between Empire and Idaho Springs.
15 percent: Decline in accidents through the 13-mile corridor.
$8: Maximum toll imposed.
32: Number of days the lane has operated. Federal officials allow a maximum of 73 days per year.
Source: Colorado Department of Transportation
CLEAR CREEK COUNTY — The idea was simple yet ambitious for a 13-mile toll lane on eastbound Interstate 70 between Empire and the east end of Idaho Springs: Help traffic flow more easily on busy days. It looks like exactly that has happened.
The Colorado Department of Transportation recently released a host of facts and figures for the first ski season the new lane has operated, all of which point to a successful debut.
According to state transportation officials, the toll lane helped all eastbound traffic move faster, with fewer accidents. The new lane also provided state officials with a way to detour around accidents, stalls and flat tires.
All that good work was accomplished for relatively inexpensive tolls. Before the lane opened in December 2015, the lane’s maximum toll of $30 received a lot of publicity, even as officials were saying the maximum price would be exceedingly rare. In its first tourist season, the maximum toll on the lane was $8.
‘A PLEASANT SURPRISE’
The lane provided some pleasant surprises for those who monitor I-70’s weekend traffic.
“It was a pleasant surprise that the results were as good as or better than advertised,” I-70 Coalition Executive Director Margaret Bowes said. The coalition is an independent group of town and county governments as well as business interests along the highway’s mountain corridor.
Bowes said a side benefit of the new lane was reduced congestion on the frontage roads in Clear Creek County. Those roads often fill up and gridlock as motorists seek to avoid I-70 traffic jams.
“Those [frontage roads] are the main street for locals,” Bowes said. “Locals are saying it’s better.”
The Colorado Legislature’s annual sessions roughly coincide with ski season. During that session, State Senator Kerry Donovan drives from her Eagle County home to Denver on Sunday afternoons. Donovan, who just finished her second legislative session, said traffic has improved in the corridor.
Donovan said she didn’t get a transponder — an in-car electronic device that can be read to levy tolls — but she did see the benefits.
“This year compared to (2015), I didn’t experience stop-and-go traffic as much.”
KEEPING TRAFFIC MOVING
Amy Ford, Colorado Department of Transportation director of communications, said traffic data shows some unexpected benefits to the lane.
“It was unexpected how effectively all three lanes flowed,” Ford said. “We had travel speeds that varied from 47 to 65 mph.”
Other benefits, including quicker trips from Silverthorne to Denver, panned out about as expected, Ford said.
Another benefit came in improved responses to accidents and other incidents.
Ford said that the express lane also shows that adding capacity to highways can be a benefit.
“There are people who say ‘you can’t pave your way out of congestion,’” Ford said. “But there are instances where adding capacity does make a difference, and this is a perfect example.”
While the lane’s first ski season is in the books, there are still more tests to come.
Summer brings the most traffic through the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels. How the lane affects warm-weather traffic — and how demand affects pricing — have yet to be seen.
Then there are the limits on how often the lane can be used.
The Federal Highway Administration sets regulations for interstate highways. At the moment, those regulations limit the use of tolled express lanes to just 73 days per year. The lane has already been open 32 days, about 45 percent of the days allowed.
Then there’s the issue of enforcement. The express lane is closed to traffic when it isn’t in use as a toll lane, and using it can result in a ticket. But, Ford said, a Colorado State Patrol officer has to see the infraction to write it up.
While questions remain, Donovan is impressed with the first season.
“This wasn’t supposed to be the solution,” Donovan said. “It’s one piece of the puzzle. We’re looking at other incremental improvements, and our goal is an effective interstate system that links Denver with the mountains.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.
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