Senate panel backs one I-70 toll plan | AspenTimes.com
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Senate panel backs one I-70 toll plan

Colleen Slevin
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” A Senate committee backed a proposal Thursday to charge up to $5 to drive a congested stretch of Interstate 70, despite objections from people who live along the highway that Front Range lawmakers are imposing on them without their input.

Legislators rejected a second proposal that many mountain residents also opposed. It would have charged a variable toll on some or all lanes of traffic of I-70 depending on the time of day to encourage more people to car pool or travel at off-peak times.

The measure didn’t set the price for the tolls and the sponsor, Denver Democratic Sen. Chris Romer, said that made it harder to pass.



He said eventually state will have to take more risks if it wants to solve congestion on I-70, the main artery to and through the mountains for tourists, truckers and locals.

“The unfortunate thing is the public really believes that the tooth fairy is going to show up and pay for these roads,” Romer said.




The surviving measure (Senate Bill 213) would allow a toll of up $5 each way on a 43-mile stretch east from just west of Denver to the Eisenhower Tunnel to finance expanding the highway.

The bill says the money would be used to expand the capacity of the highway, but the sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, said that would not preclude any other solutions mountain communities are studying and will provide some needed funding. It will be considered next by the appropriations committee.

Local governments from Golden to Grand Junction as well as environmentalists, ski resorts and truckers are looking at expanding the highway as well as adding mass transit, such as a train, and expect to make a recommendation by the end of May. The process began last year when new state transportation chief Russell George agreed to work with communities on finding a solution.

Trucking groups and the grocery chain King Soopers also oppose the toll bill, saying it would make goods more expensive.

Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, criticized McElhany for not talking to mountain residents or businesses about his plan.

McElhany said transportation projects shouldn’t be “parochial.”

“Senator Gibbs, the impacted community is all of Colorado,” he said.

McElhany wants to exempt people who live in Clear Creek, Summit and Gilpin counties from the toll, but people in other mountain counties have also asked to get a break.

Other residents have said they think the exemption could be a trick to get them to buy into the plan, and that they could end up paying the toll like everyone else if the exemption is ruled unconstitutional.

Ways to relieve growing congestion on I-70 has been studied for more than 20 years, but solutions have been stalled by environmental concerns and by disagreements among the communities themselves and between the towns and the state transportation department.

Under George’s predecessor, the department rejected mass transit as too expensive, which angered many mountain residents.

Clear Creek County commissioner Kevin O’Malley acknowledged it has taken too long to come up with a solution but urged lawmakers to wait until the latest attempt to build consensus wraps up later this spring.

“Please don’t do this now. Do it next year,” said O’Malley, who was limited to giving one-minute testimony like other members of the public during the nearly three-hour hearing.

But Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, said she was tired of waiting. She said moving ahead with the toll bill might draw more attention to the work the I-70 group is doing and help get their recommendations implemented.

Romer, one of several co-sponsors of McElhany’s bill, said he will continue supporting it while watching to see what the I-70 group recommends.

“I’m going to hold them accountable to that solution,” he said.

Colorado would have to get permission from the federal government to charge a toll on an existing highway but it does have an advantage over other states because it joined a federal pilot project in 1995.

U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Turmail said Colorado could be allowed to charge a toll if it could show the highway is congested and that the money would be used on a transportation project that qualifies for federal funding.