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GUEST COLUMN: I-25 Express Lanes concerns and considerations

By: Robert K. (Rocky) Scott
January 12, 2018 Updated: January 12, 2018 at 4:25 am
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Relief from crashes and long delays may be ahead for the 18-mile "Gap" section of Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock.

At the urging of citizens and government officials throughout the region the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has come up with a fast track process that could result in the start of construction in less than a year, if all the planning pieces fall into place. We should all be proud of their work.

Regional and state government organizations have identified $350 million in potential funding for the project. El Paso County leaders have led arrangements for $25 million from the the Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Authority and El Paso County. The Colorado Transportation Commission has provisionally allocated $250 million and, with the leadership and support of El Paso County Commissioners, an additional $65 million will hopefully come from winning a highly competitive federal INFRA grant for which the County applied (understanding there were some known expressed concerns about tolling which still needed to be discussed), on behalf of all of its regional partners. Successful INFRA grant applicants will need to demonstrate innovation in operations and regional/state funding support such as tolling revenue.

As reported in The Gazette last September and October, CDOT experience and evaluation of existing projects show that making the new lane in each direction an Express Lane would be the best option to improve safety, mobility and travel reliability. This has stirred great interest, creating concerns that deserve attention and reliable responses which are provided below.

Concern: "I want to drive to Denver on I-25 without paying a toll."

Consider: As with all current state funded urban Interstate projects in Colorado, there would always be a free option. Where time is more critical for some travelers' trips, a tolled Express Lane would be an option. The tolls would be variable, going up or down to manage levels of congestion which is certain to worsen again over time as population grows, returning to current conditions if only a general purpose lane is added as is clearly evident with the I-25 T-REX project through the Denver Tech Center.

Concern: "We don't need a toll lane to improve performance."

Consider: Based on travelers' experiences on other Colorado Express Lane corridors like U.S. 36 and I-70 west of Denver, everyone sees a benefit in their travel times whether paying a toll or not. Traffic moves up to 29 percent faster across all lanes of U.S. 36. Travel times for everyone have been reduced up to 52 percent for people coming home from the mountains on I-70. With growing congestion on our roadways, we have all learned that we cannot build ourselves out of congestion.

I'm personally convinced, knowing what data and experience tell us at this point, that a decision to not use the Express Lane option would be irresponsible. We would be knowingly denying El Paso County travelers the safety and reliability advantages of the preferred two free/one tolled lane configuration.

Concern: "We don't need a toll lane to help pay for the project."

Consider: It would cost up to $650 million plus operations and maintenance costs to address all the challenges in the Gap, such as adding two lanes in each direction. Funding at that level is not available and isn't on the horizon. CDOT has a yearly $1 billion unfunded backlog of projects across the state as the state gas tax, on a per vehicle, per lane mile and per person basis, has declined significantly since the early 1990s. That's like having no pay increases while cost of living soars. for nearly 30 years.

CDOT had to reduce the scope of the Gap project by half so relief could be available in the near future instead of waiting years for funds to become available to build the full project. Revenues from the Express Lanes could help pay for some of the construction of the new full project, as well as offset maintenance and other costs (a newly improved road still needs ongoing maintenance). Toll revenues collected from the Gap project could be used only in the I-25 South corridor, as is required by state law.

Concern: "El Paso County taxpayers will already be paying their fair share for the project without any tolling."

Consider: El Paso County contributions will directly pay for 7 percent of the project cost but county taxpayers will get the greatest benefit of 100 percent of the 18 miles of improvements. Commitment of local funds, which were made possible by the El Paso Commissioners and Douglas County Commissioners, are a strong testament of local and regional support to improve the Gap, and are consistent with how other projects around the state, such as the North I-25 Express Lanes in Larimer and Weld counties, have been funded.

I would appreciate hearing from readers about additional concerns. My email address is commissioner.rscott@gmail.com. More detailed information on the Gap project is available at https://www.codot.gov/projects/I25COSDEN.

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Robert K. (Rocky) Scott is Colorado Transportation Commissioner, District 9 (El Paso, Teller, Fremont, Park counties).

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