Express lane expedites eastbound drive on I-70 | VailDaily.com

Express lane expedites eastbound drive on I-70

CLEAR CREEK COUNTY — Members of the I-70 Coalition had hoped a new toll lane along 13 miles of Interstate 70 would help ease congestion on go-home Sundays. The results have been a pleasant surprise.

The lane "has delivered as promised — and then some," I-70 Coalition Director Margaret Bowes said. The coalition, a group of government and business groups along the corridor, has sponsored several ideas to try to ease congestion on the highway. This one, built by the Colorado Department of Transportation with a combination of existing funds and borrowed money — hence the tolls — seems to have had an immediate impact.

A recent report from the state agency states that the lane captured 8 percent of all traffic on go-home Sundays in the summer, the busiest season for traffic. Given the amount of I-70 eastbound traffic on those days — more than 40,000 vehicles per day on those Sundays, with a peak of $48,400 Aug. 7 — 8 percent is a significant number.

That number is significant for the existing, free, lanes. The state report shows that travel times improved 38 percent for that traffic.

A better Labor Day

The improvement was particularly pronounced over Labor Day weekend.

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In 2012, the eastbound corridor through Clear Creek County carried 40,500 vehicles per day, with speeds consistently slower than 20 mph.

This year, the same stretch of highway carried 46,300 vehicles per day, with speeds mostly faster than 45 mph.

Megan Castle, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation said there have been other benefits beyond easing the crush of traffic on days visitors head home.

The biggest improvement comes when there's an accident. When that happens, general traffic can use the toll lane at no charge to get around stalled or crashed vehicles.

"We can return to normal speeds quickly instead of having the corridor collapse for an hour," Castle said.

And, Bowes said, Clear Creek County residents — the people hit hardest by go-home traffic — have seen another clear benefit: easier traffic on the frontage roads. Before the toll lane opened, people trying to avoid I-70 traffic jams would often try to get onto the frontage roads in the corridor. Those two-lane roads would quickly jam, and traffic often moved even more slowly on those roads.

"Those are the main streets for those communities," Bowes said.

No $30 tolls — yet

There's also good news for those who use the lane on peak days. Tolls charged are based on traffic volume, and the state's desire to keep traffic rolling at 45 mph or faster in the express lane. To do that, a flexible system has been devised, with a maximum toll of $30. That top number drew a lot of negative attention.

The reality is that tolls on the corridor are usually between $4 and $6. Castle said the maximum toll so far has been $8 for the 13-mile trip.

Motorists can pay the toll one of two ways: Many motorists have transponders that can be read on the lane. Castle said no more than half of those using the lane have those transponders.

Most drivers simply have their vehicle's license plate read, with a bill mailed to the address where the car is registered, whether in Colorado or elsewhere. Those drivers pay a bit more.

If people in rental cars use the lane, they'll pay, too, with the rental company passing along the toll charge.

Just what that charge is depends on the rental company, Castle said.

"They all have (their charges) in the fine print (of the rental agreement)," Castle said. "It's important that people look at that before they rent."

Castle added that people planning to come to Colorado on vacation can go to http://www.express toll.com to advance-purchase a toll pass for the time they're in the state.

More toll lanes coming

The success of the mountain and other toll lanes means more are coming through the state.

Castle said the Interstate 25 corridor between Fort Collins and Johnstown just received a grant for a toll lane there. Another lane is being built along C-470 in the Highlands Ranch portion of the Denver metro area.

The success of the Clear Creek County lane also has transportation planners starting to take a look at the possibility of someday building a westbound lane. That lane would be more difficult to build, and there aren't funds available.

But, Bowes said state officials have started working with governments and others along the corridor to start the lengthy planning process.

Ultimately, traffic will continue to grow along the I-70 mountain corridor as the state's population grows, and long-term solutions are wildly expensive.

"This isn't a long-term fix," Bowes said. "But it is a fantastic mid-term improvement."

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