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Toll lanes are best bet for I-25 widening, CDOT official says

December 4, 2017 Updated: December 5, 2017 at 10:46 am
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Southbound traffic begins to build on Interstate 25 Thursday afternoon, Oct. 12, 2017, just before exit 172 near Larkspur, Colo. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

The new head of the Colorado Department of Transportation made his case on Monday for adding toll lanes to widen Interstate 25 from Monument to Castle Rock.

Incoming CDOT Executive Director Michael Lewis said at a news conference that the toll lanes are the best solution for "reliability and mobility" and that the revenue they would generate will be needed to pay for maintenance on the widened stretch of highway.

Under the proposal, a pair of Express Lanes - similar to the toll lanes on U.S. 36 from Denver to Boulder - would be added to the roughly 18-mile stretch of interstate known as the "Gap," widening it from two to three lanes in each direction.

A CDOT spokesman told The Gazette on Friday that construction on the project could begin in late 2018 - nearly a year earlier than expected - and end in spring 2021 if funding sources are finalized.

"Because the Express Lane is a choice lane, it provides an opportunity to use that lane at a lower volume - and therefore higher reliability and higher level of service - if you need to get to where you're going," Lewis said at the briefing, held at the agency's Colorado Springs office on South Cascade Avenue. "If there's an appointment, if there's a flight to catch, if there's a meeting - it provides just short of a guarantee to be able to get you there at that particular time."

CDOT, which faces an annual budget shortfall of roughly $1 billion for infrastructure improvements needed statewide, has relied increasingly on toll lanes to finance and levy other funding sources for large-scale projects. While the model is controversial, data has shown that Express Lanes have helped relieve congestion on other Colorado highways, including U.S. 36 and I-70 from Empire to Idaho Springs. Since the Express Lane project was completed on U.S. 36 in 2015, commuters in all lanes have been able to travel at speeds 20 to 29 percent faster during peak hours, according to CDOT.

Transportation officials also explored other options, including adding general purpose lanes or peak period shoulder lanes, but found that toll lanes were the best solution, Lewis said.

The tolls, which will be collected by CDOT, have not been determined, he said.

"Without a new revenue source, the funds to pay for the maintenance of that added pavement are just not there," Lewis said in an interview after the press conference. Toll revenue would not be used to pay for construction, he added.

Lewis said "there's still some uncertainty" regarding the funding for the $350 million widening. Officials are hoping to pay for the project using a combination of local, state and federal funds. But CDOT won't know until the spring if the project has been chosen for a highly competitive $65 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program.

"We think that we have a very competitive project," Lewis said of the grant application. "In no way is that a guarantee, but we're very hopeful."

Colorado's Transportation Commission voted in October to tentatively designate about $250 million - some of the money that a new state law is expected to generate through the sale of state-owned buildings - to the widening. But if the project doesn't receive the federal grant, state transportation officials have said they will need to revisit the allocation.

Two more victories came for the project on Nov. 7, when voters in El Paso County approved a pair of ballot initiatives that would set aside at least $16 million for the project. One measure gave the county permission to retain excess tax revenues, including at least $6 million that will help pay for the widening; another will allow the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority to use $10 million in future transportation tax revenue to pay for the project.

Douglas and El Paso counties will likely make up the difference. Douglas County commissioners are considering a budget proposal for next year that would include plans to allocate $10 million to the project in future years.

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller said he's advocating for El Paso County to put another $9 million toward the project through its regular budgeting process this year and next.

Waller, a key player in getting the recently approved funding requests on the November ballot, said he's heard from constituents who aren't pleased with the idea of widening the interstate with toll roads. "We've identified the $350 million necessary to get this project moving forward," he said after Monday's media briefing. "I haven't seen a capital construction need for tolling to make this project work."

Current design plans include widening the highway's shoulder lanes and separating the northbound and southbound sides with a concrete barrier, according to CDOT. Lewis said. The improvements would be structured so that more lanes could be added to the highway - likely 15 to 20 years in the future - as the population along the Front Range continues to grow, he said.

Several wildlife crossings also be added to the stretch of interstate, he added.

Lewis, who has been CDOT's deputy executive director, was chosen by Gov. John Hickenlooper to replace Executive Director Shailen Bhatt, who in October announced he was stepping down to take a job at a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for transportation innovation.

CDOT will hold two open houses for the project this week. The first will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Kirk Hall at the Douglas County Fairgrounds; the second will be 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at the El Paso County Office of Emergency Management, 3755 Mark Dabling Boulevard

The public will have a chance to make comments and ask questions about the project at the events, according to a news release from the agency. Attendees will also receive an update on two ongoing federally required analyses, including the Planning and Environmental Linkages (PEL) study, which focuses on short-term and long-term improvements on the stretch of I-25 from Monument to C-470.

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