Toll lane sees early success | AspenTimes.com

Toll lane sees early success

Scott N. Miller
smiller@vaildaily.com

CLEAR CREEK COUNTY — So far, so good.

That's the early, cautious opinion about a 13-mile toll lane along the left shoulder of eastbound Interstate 70 through Clear Creek County. The lane — which functions as a highway shoulder most of the time — was mostly built in 2015 by the Colorado Department of Transportation. The intent was to help ease the long delays faced by those driving to the Denver area on Sunday afternoons and some Monday holidays.

The lane has been open to traffic only a handful of times since it opened in December. But traffic over the New Year's holiday was heavier than expected. In fact, the weekend of Jan. 1 to 3 had the third-highest winter traffic counts ever recorded at the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels, with just more than 140,000 vehicles passing through the bores.

Even with that heavy traffic on a go-home Sunday, eastbound traffic continued to flow.

"What we're seeing is that things are moving," Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford said. "The added capacity has made a difference in that (highway) corridor."

'Zero to Minimal Delays'

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Margaret Bowes is the director of the I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit group of local governments and businesses that monitors and advocates for improvements along the corridor.

Bowes, who lives in Summit County, said it usually takes a bit more than an hour to drive from Silverthorne to the junction of Colorado Highway 470 at the west end of the Denver metro area. Even during the holiday weekends, that trip was just a bit longer.

"Over holiday weekends, we'll usually see an extra hour or so (of travel time)," Bowes said. "This year we saw zero to minimal delays."

Bowes said perhaps the biggest benefit so far has been taking traffic off the frontage road in Clear Creek County. That road often jams up even worse than the interstate on high-traffic days.

"That (frontage road) is their main street," Bowes said. "That's how people get to work."

The extra lane itself helps keep traffic moving. But having more space along the eastbound route also comes in handy when there's a minor accident.

Ford said there were two accidents in the non-tolled lanes on the Jan. 10 go-home day. Traffic was shifted over to the express lane — and tolls were lifted — allowing traffic to flow past the accident sites.

On the subject of tolls, while much fuss was made about the $30 maximum possible toll before the lane opened, tolls so far on heavy traffic days have stayed below $10.

Ford said some tolls have gone to $5 or $6, with $4 and $5 tolls being common so far. Those are the tolls charged to those who have transponders in their cars, though. The lane has equipment that can read signals from transponders, as well as cameras to take photos of license plates. Drivers without transponders are charged slightly more to use the lane — if the cameras can read their plates.

"There are going to be some unreadable (plates)," Ford said. "But for the most part, we're getting everybody."

Left Lane for Passing Only

Ken Hoeve owns AlpenGo, a Vail Valley-based limo company, and regularly drives through Clear Creek County. Hoeve said he's only been on the highway a few times when the toll lane is open, and paid the toll on one trip.

"I used it, it saved me about 10 minutes and it cost me $4," Hoeve said.

Hoeve said it's probably too soon to pass judgement on whether the lane is a success, and said he believes traffic would flow better if people would use the Interstate's left lane for passing only.

Education, along with tickets and hefty fines, might be a better solution to congestion along the interstate, Hoeve said.

But transportation officials say they're already looking at plans to create a westbound equivalent to the eastbound toll lane.

"We do have a westbound lane on the books," Ford said. But, she added, that lane would be more complicated than the eastbound lane — the westbound lane is more constricted geographically — and there's no immediate source of funding.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

Five facts

What: A toll lane on eastbound Interstate 70 in Clear Creek County.

When it’s open: Heavy-traffic weekends and some Mondays.

Length: 13 miles.

Owner: The state of Colorado.

Cost: $72 million.

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