Can new lane ease Interstate 70 congestion?
What: A new lane along a 13-mile stretch of eastbound Interstate 70 in Clear Creek County.
Cost: About $70 million.
How can I use it? It’s a toll lane, to be used only during peak traffic periods.
Will it save time? Officials say users will save at least 30 minutes on busy days.
How to learn more: The Colorado Department of Transportation will hold a telephone information session on the shoulder lane project Sept. 21. To learn more, go to http://www.cotrip.org.
CLEAR CREEK COUNTY — Interstate 70 through the mountains hasn’t been expanded much since it was finished in 1979. That’s going to change this year.
Perhaps as soon as December, the Colorado Department of Transportation will open a new lane along a 13-mile stretch of I-70 between Empire and the base of Floyd Hill. The lane, along the left shoulder of the highway, will only be open during peak periods — particularly weekends and holidays — and motorists will have to pay a toll to use it.
‘WILLING TO PAY’
The price of those tolls will depend on traffic.
Department of transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford said the idea for variable tolls is to both keep traffic moving and put enough customers on the lane to pay the bills — the lane used bonds for part of its financing, and those bonds will be repaid by toll revenue.
That means tolls could be as little as $3 per vehicle during relatively light periods.
On the other hand, in order to keep the promise of traffic moving at a minimum speed of at least 40 mph, lanes users will have to be limited. That limit will come via higher prices. Ford said tolls could go as high as $30 per car during very heavy periods, but added that she expects that maximum toll will rarely be imposed.
“It’s an interesting experiment — we’re going to see what people are willing to pay,” I-70 Coalition Director Margaret Bowes said. The Coalition is a nonprofit group made up of local governments and businesses dedicated to helping traffic move more smoothly through the corridor between Vail and Denver.
Bowes said the lane project is unique in Colorado, in that tolls are being used to manage use of the lane.
And that lane is a limited resource. Ford said state and federal officials had to agree how a toll system would operate along I-70. That agreement limits the amount of time the lane can be open, she said. State officials believe they have the right amount of operating time built into the agreement.
But who will use it?
At $3, expect the lane to be pretty popular. At $10 or more? Well, we’ll see.
“If I have a flight to catch, $10 sounds pretty good,” Bowes said.
On the other hand, will a group of college students fresh off a day at Keystone be willing to pay?
‘BENEFIT TO ALL’
If the lane is a success, Ford said people who stick to the un-tolled lane of the interstate should be moving a bit faster, if only because a portion of traffic that used to be sitting with everyone else will be zipping through Clear Creek County in the toll lane.
“It’s a benefit to all people who are traveling,” Ford said. “But there will still be delays.”
Ford said someone who has car trouble in the 13-mile stretch will still be able to get off the road. But if a car stalls during a jam, then emergency agencies will have to be quick to the scene to avoid bigger problems.
While there’s just one toll fee, the shoulder lane may be pressed into unpaid use. Ford said traffic can be moved to the toll lane — at no charge — in the case of accidents that tie up the un-tolled lanes.
In the longer term, the new shoulder lane represents progress in other ways.
“This is a big deal,” Bowes said. “This is the first time we’ve had significant new capacity on I-70 in many years.”
It’s also the first phase of a years-in-the-making long-term plan for the highway corridor. Those improvements will take years — and a lot of money — to complete. But a successful first step could lead to more improvements in years to come.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com and @scottnmiller.