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Will Tolling Become The Ultimate CDOT Funding Source?

Colorado Department of Transportation
The I-25 managed toll lane.

The contract for a 50 year U.S. 36 public-private partnership that has caused a public furor has been signed. Colorado Department of Transportation officials say the P3 is an effective way to fund transport projects. But with more managed toll lanes and possible P3’s in the works, are they best solution to a growing traffic problem?

No one questions the fact that traffic is getting worse across Colorado. CDOT says the state’s roadways handle over 27.4 billion vehicle miles of travel each year. And, on average, every Coloradan faces 17 minutes of delay every day due to congested highways.

The state’s population is expected to be nearly 10 million by 2050, so CDOT is looking for a way to minimize congestion and a way to pay for it.

“Tolling is one of the tools,” said Dave Kristick, director of operations for the E-470 Public Highway Authority. “We in the tolling business are very, very familiar with the adage 'There are no free roads in America.' You’re going to pay for them one way or the other - taxes, gas taxes, tolling.”

Credit Colorado Department of Transportation
A pictograph from CDOT's 2013 Annual Report.

CDOT financial figures from 2013 show drivers, depending on their gas mileage, spend between $20 and $25 a month through federal and state gas taxes and FASTER fees to use the state’s roadways.

Mike Cheroutes with the High Performance Transportation Enterprise says that’s not nearly enough.

“In the case of CDOT, and most other states, the funding sources for any kind of new capacity congestion relief facilities is so constrained,” said Cheroutes.

He notes that partnerships and tolling are viable solutions, especially considering the current economic climate.

“Personally whether I’d like to see a more stable revenue flow coming into the state from the federal government or from the state government, sure,” Cheroutes said. “That would make things a lot easier. But right now this is the only way we’ve got to get it done.”

The Managing Administrator of the Northwest Parkway, Charles Ozaki says tolling makes his 100 percent privately funded public toll road possible. With few sources of new income available, it’s a solid solution in his eyes.

“I guess the public could raise their own taxes that they pay, but I haven’t seen that as being presented as a viable option in today’s current situation in Colorado” Ozaki said.

Coloradans do pay federal and state gas taxes to fund the state’s roadways, but those revenues have essentially been flat since the 1990s. All the while costs for CDOT have skyrocketed.

That’s the crux of the situation. How do you pay for upkeep and construction of roads? Are higher taxes the answer or toll roads?

Ken Beitel of the Drive Sunshine Institute believes the answer is taxes. His group has been critical of the tolling and P3 plans along U.S. 36.

“There are at least four different options for raising revenue that the tax payer of Colorado would support.” Beitel said tax payers he’s talked to would be willing to use surplus monies from the marijuana sales tax, or raising Colorado’s oil and gas production tax. He's also proposing the state create a 1 percent flat tax on all income over $500,000 to fund new highway construction.

“CDOT again makes a false claim that tax payers would not support an increase in a fuel tax and CDOT says they’ve done surveys to that affect,” said Beitel. “What proponents of tolling have not done - there has never been a survey done in Colorado asking people if they would prefer toll roads, or would they prefer a slightly higher fuel tax.”

Greeley commuter Melissa Jensen says she’s willing to pay a higher gas tax, since right now she can’t afford paying daily tolls. Like more and more Colorado drivers, she owns a hybrid and isn’t filling up much at the pump – resulting in lower revenue collected on the gas tax.

“But on the other side of that, a Prius does cost more money, so I paid more for the taxes to buy the car and my plates are really expensive,” said Jensen. “Without seeing numbers I don’t know… but that might balance out.”

Balancing things out is exactly what transportation managers like E470’s Operations Director Dave Kristick are trying to do. He says managed toll lanes keep traffic moving, and allows those that want to get to their destination sooner a way to ‘pay to play’ while taking that revenue and investing it back into maintenance costs and revenue streams.

“What that offers for the people in the general purpose lanes, is we’re shifting that capacity into the managed lane facilities at the benefit of the people that do not want to pay a toll, or a user fee, to use that stuff,” Kristick said. “So the people that would use the managed lanes they’d benefit because it’s their choice. The people that tend to use the general purpose lane, they benefit also because we’ve shifted that capacity into other facilities.”

Even with pushback from the public and lawmakers about the construction of toll lanes on U.S. 36 and the creation of a P3, CDOT says they are the future of Colorado transportation.

Plans are also in the works for a peak traffic toll lane along the I70 corridor in the mountains by 2015, and talks are underway for another managed toll lane between Denver and Fort Collins.

The Federal Highway Administration Explains Tolling


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