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Colorado drivers likely to have option to pay to for the fast lane

November 16, 2013

Drivers on Colorado roads who are willing to pay for a less congested lane will likely have more opportunities to do so in the coming years.

In its latest round of funding, the Colorado Department of Transportation pegged project money for at least four toll lanes - some pending approval by local governments.

The projects have a dual goal: reduce congestion and raise money for road projects.

Under RAMP, or Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships, the department approved money for tolled express lanes on C-470 from Kipling Street to I-25, on I-25 from 120th Avenue to Colorado 7, on I-25 from Highway 7 north and on I-70 eastbound through metro Denver, said Amy Ford, CDOT spokeswoman.

I-70 eastbound from Empire Junction to Idaho Springs also will get some temporary congestion help, Ford said. A tolled express lane will be built on the shoulder of the highway for peak periods such as on Sunday afternoons and is expected to be completed in 2015.

"We are going to pave out the shoulder and turn it on during peak travel hours," she said.

Meantime, more permanent solutions are being studied.

The program to build these toll lanes comes under Colorado High Performance Transportation Enterprise, a branch of CDOT with its own board that is scouting for ways to raise money to fill transportation needs.

The enterprise has the power to impose tolls, user fees, issue revenue bonds and enter into contracts with public and private entities to form public-private partnerships.

"As a policy, CDOT has determined that looking at toll express lanes or managed lanes is a strategy that we're going to employ as we move forward," Ford said.

Colorado isn't the only state looking at tolls as a way to raise transportationdollars.

Other states pinched by the decline in federal funds through an 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax are also tolling for money.

"It's a new trend," Ford said. "You are seeing it happen all around the country. It accelerates projects and puts private resources in the project. The return is they get to collect the tolls."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have some form of tolling authorization or facility.

Of those, 28 states and Puerto Rico have toll facilities operated by statewide entities, 14 states have toll facilities operated by regional entities and 20 states and Puerto Rico have privately operated toll facilities.

No toll lanes are being eyed for Colorado Springs or Pueblo, Ford said.

"Neither of those corridors is something we are looking at for that level of congestion," she said. "It's truly where the congestion is."

But local transportation officials are open to alternative funding measures.

"When it comes to something like express toll lanes, our board hasn't taken a position but I would say they are always open to hearing the options and seeing what they would entail," said Jason Wilkinson, spokesman for the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.

One project is done.

Tolled Express Lanes in the I-25 HOV lanes opened in June 2006. Those lanes allow solo drivers to drive in existing HOV lanes by paying a toll.

Also known as HOT lanes, for High Occupancy Toll, these lanes run seven miles from downtown Denver to U.S. 36.

Among the projects that are underway are a $312 million project to reconstruct and widen 10 miles of U.S. 36 between Federal Boulevard and 88th Street in Louisville.

Expansion will include one HOT lane in each direction.

It won't be the first time for tolls on Highway 36. The road between Denver and Boulder opened as a toll road in 1951, according to CDOT. When the construction bonds were paid off early, the tolls were eliminated in 1968.

Tolls for some of the new projects have not been determined, but will be tied to bus fares, Ford said.

Toll prices, she said, "will never go below bus fares. We always want to tie it to the bus fares because we want to encourage all modes."

Another measurement for toll prices will be will be the amount of congestion.

"The more congestion, the higher the toll," Ford said. "So traffic is monitored. The 36 corridor will be literally dynamic. It can change every five or 10 minutes, depending on the congestion. It really is the road of the future."

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