Use of I-70 toll lane in Clear Creek County more than doubled over winter

The 13-mile tolled express lane on Interstate 70, stretching from Empire to Idaho Springs, features a fluctuating toll for a shoulder designed to function as a lane up to 73 days per year.
Courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation | Colorado Department of Transport

By the numbers

9 percent: Increase in Interstate 70 corridor traffic in the winter of 2016-17 over the previous year.

8 percent: Amount of traffic using the Mountain Express Lane in Clear Creek County.

22 percent: Decline in peak-day traffic incidents when the lane was in use.

73: Days the express lane is allowed to operate, since it’s still considered a shoulder lane.

Source: Colorado Department of Transportation

What about lane poaching?

By federal agreement, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Mountain Express Lane is only allowed to be open to traffic for 73 days per year. The rest of the time, the lane is the left-hand shoulder of the road. Drive in the lane when it’s closed, and you’ll get a ticket if caught.

CDOT spokeswoman Megan Castle said the Colorado State Patrol will only issue tickets if an officer catches someone, or if a motorist reports another motorist using the lane.

Remember, though, when the lane is a highway shoulder, there may be disabled vehicles parked there. There also might be a cop in the lane.

Don’t poach it.

CLEAR CREEK COUNTY — The Mountain Express Lane, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s $70 million investment in easing traffic congestion in the Interstate 70 corridor, appears to be paying dividends.

According to a recent CDOT report, use of the express lane more than doubled in its second winter season. That increased lane use came as traffic increased in the corridor. During the winter, about 8 percent of peak-day traffic used the lane when it was open. CDOT spokeswoman Megan Castle said those motorists paid an average of between $5 and $6 to use the 13-mile lane.

Those paying customers are saving everyone a good bit of time, Castle said.

“It’s making that return trip to Denver so much better,” Castle said. “It’s reducing travel times from 26 (percent) to 52 percent.”

Colorado Mountain Express has vans on the I-70 corridor every day. Company vice president and general manager John Dawsey said the lane has been a boon for both drivers and passengers.

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Dawsey said all of the company’s vans are equipped with transponders that record when a vehicle enters the lane, and when the lane is open, drivers are allowed to use it at their discretion.

Dawsey said on those peak days, Colorado Mountain Express vans are significantly quicker on the trip to Denver than they were in the couple of seasons before the lane opened. Dawsey said he’s also been pleased with the way the lane has been managed.

Variable tolls

That management includes variable tolls that depend on how many motorists are using it. For now, tolls are fairly low-priced, given that the lane has been carrying about 8 percent of peak-day traffic. But as traffic increases and express lane use goes up, toll fees increase, too.

Castle said that the lane will start to slow down if it’s carrying more than about 10 percent of all traffic. If too many people want to use the lane, then prices will go up to limit demand.

The express lane is part of the future of traffic management on I-70. The intent is to use several projects over time to help ease congestion. And, while the roughly $70 million cost of the lane seems steep, it’s far lower than the estimated billions required for big, multi-year projects that are unlikely to find funding.

Margaret Bowes is the director of the I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit group made up of local governments and business interests along the corridor.

Bowes, who lives in Summit County, said she’s used the lane a handful of times on peak days.

Paying the toll was a small price to ensure making it on time to family member’s wedding in Denver, she said.

More to come

Bowes said the express lane is part of a larger menu of projects for I-70 through Clear Creek County — roughly between Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels and the top of Floyd Hill.

Bowes said discussions have started about creating another express lane, this time in the westbound lanes, between the Veterans Memorial Tunnels east of Idaho Springs and the Empire exit, where Winter Park-bound traffic leaves the highway.

Another part of the bigger plan is adding a third lane from the top of Floyd Hill down to the intersection with U.S. Highway 6 as it comes out of Clear Creek Canyon.

Work in the westbound lanes — especially replacing the westbound bridge at the bottom of Floyd Hill — will be complicated, expensive work, Bowes said. Work will require some highway realignment and could require moving some interchanges.

But the work is needed. As the state’s population grows, so does traffic from the Denver area to the mountains. While the biggest traffic days at the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnels come in the summer, ski season traffic grew by roughly 9 percent during the 20016-2017 winter season.

With traffic expected to grow every year — and with the state’s population projected to roughly double by 2050 — it’s going to take more than highway improvements to keep the highway running.

The I-70 Coalition has for a few years run a program to encourage visitors to linger a few hours longer in the mountains. That free program allows businesses to advertise specials to keep people in the high country for a few hours before heading home.

Bowes said other education programs are in place or planned, and there’s going to be a greater focus on transit.

For now, though, it’s a little easier to make the weekend trip from Denver — or for mountain residents to get to a wedding, concert or sporting event.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, or @scottnmiller.

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