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Tolls on Colorado interstate expansions likely, popular or not

January 21, 2018 Updated: January 22, 2018 at 8:38 am
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Looking north towards Castle Rock Thursday, Deceber 22, 2016 as heavy traffic moves along I-25 which is two lanes in each direction. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

A bill last year to plow $300 million a year in sales tax revenue into transportation needs in Colorado bogged down over tolling. Legislation this year would take that much out of the state budget, and it steers around the sticky politics of toll roads.

"If we ask voters to let us use $300 million of taxpayer money from the state budget to build new roads and lay new asphalt, we don't feel we need to ask them to pay a tax again to use it," said Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

He also is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 1, which will get its first hearing before his committee Tuesday afternoon.

But just because lawmakers don't ask for a toll - don't even want a toll - that doesn't mean there won't be tolls.

The euphemistically named "express lanes" are included as an important option to help pay for the state's most important highway expansions for the foreseeable future.

Express lanes are already part of the I-25 north expansion from Denver to Fort Collins, as well as on I-70 in the mountains from Empire to Idaho Springs. Within a few months, the environmental assessment for the 17-mile gap from Monument to Castle Rock will be complete, and the option to toll is part of the plan.

Amy Ford, the spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the agency's managed lanes policy says that express lanes are considered in every major expansion.

"The idea of the express lane is that it's something that we can manage over time, so that we always at least have one lane that moves reliably at reliable speeds," she said. "Of course you use the tolling, the pricing, as a way of doing that."

With a couple of exceptions in Colorado, tolling isn't the Northeastern-style turnpikes where drivers are forced to pay in order to go. Colorado adds on an extra "managed" lane where drivers can scoot over, speed up and pay up later. Ideally, the lane pays for itself with tolls and those in the free lanes have fewer vehicles in their path. The price to use the I-70 Mountain Express, the toll lane that accompanies two free lanes costs from $3 to $40 depending on variable circumstances, including how far you go. The dollar amount appears on electronic signs above the lane.

Toll, however, is a four-letter word to nearly every politician and most drivers. But perhaps it would be less so, if they consider all the options.

Most business and civic supporters of a transportation fix says it's a necessary, fiscally responsible part of a way to pay for transportation. If a few people are willing to pay to get out of the way, let them, they say. And if you're in a hurry, where time is more valuable than a few dollars, it's a nice option to have.

The Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC worked tirelessly to widen the gap in El Paso and Douglas counties, and the potential for express lanes was one of the ways it got moved up from about 10 years out to where it is now, practically resting on the drawing board awaiting $350 million to build it.

The current plan would add one new lane in each direction - most likely a toll lane.

"It's not just the congestion on that stretch, but the lack of reliability," said Rachel Beck, government affairs manager with the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC. "Every time there's an accident, there's no way to get around it."

The state's truckers are another group decidely opposed to tolling.

"Managed lanes are like a new form of trickle down economics," said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association.

Most drivers can't or won't pay the toll for what Fulton and other tolling opponents call "Lexus lanes."

"While higher income individuals are afforded the luxury of significantly reducing their travel time, others with lower means, who cannot afford to be in that lane - or are not in a position to be in a three-person carpool or travel by transit - are stuck in the other lanes hoping for the spill-over or trickle-down benefit from others using the toll lanes," Fulton said.

Where the lanes cause the most problems is in political messaging. Toll roads are seldom appreciated for steering public costs to the actual users. An ABC-Washington Post poll last year found that Americans were 2-to-1 against a Trump administration proposal to mend the nation's infrastructure with privatization and tolls.

But the Colorado Springs chamber did some internal polling on tolling, and found 56 percent to 44 percent support, if it meant getting traffic moving, Beck said.

The chamber had apprehensions about the failed bipartisan bill last year that would have asked voters to approve a sales tax for transportation. That bill was called a wobbly request to voters, made all the more wobbly by the inclusion of tolling, because it would be one more reason for voters who dislike new taxes to dislike this one even more.

This year's Senate Bill 1 would repay bonds out of tax money already in the state budget.

If the referred ballot measure gets out of the Statehouse, voters would be asked to let the state borrow the money that's repaid with their taxes.

"The North I-25 project is an express-lane project, and the community in the northern Colorado region is supportive of it," said Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Weld County commissioner and chair of the North I-25 Coalition. "Managed lanes are an important tool to assure a reliable trip, to fund large projects like North I-25 and to allow growth to pay its own way."

Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said, "Last year CDOT developed a very prescriptive list of requirements for the unique situations in which tolls could be used. We were supportive of that approach and would continue to be supportive of using those criteria to determine when tolling could be implemented."

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