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Tolled Express Lanes A National Trend, And Colorado's Firmly On Board

Flickr-Creative Commons
An express toll lane in Utah on southbound I-15. Note the electronic sign that notifies drivers of the variable price of the toll.

On a June day in 2006, Myron Swisher stood on a highway overpass, watching a history-making moment on Interstate 25. Swisher, who worked for the state Department of Transportation, had labored for the past nine years to open a high occupancy toll lane on the crowded road, and he wanted to watch the first cars use it.

"The day we opened, I hopped in the car and went out to the 58th Avenue Bridge that looks down upon the tolling zone," Swisher said. "It was probably about 2:30 in the afternoon, so I wanted to get out there and see how things are going before rush hour started."

Looking back, Swisher's moment on the bridge may have marked the beginning of a new era in Colorado transportation.

The state is now in the midst of planning or constructing at least four new express toll lanes on Front Range highways. It's not alone: transportation experts say the trend toward tolling new highway lanes, begun in California, is spreading to congested cities across the country.

"We're seeing an explosion of these projects across the country to help create mobility in these congested corridors," said Chuck Fuhs, a Houston-based consultant with 40 years of experience in the transportation industry.

The reason for this is twofold, said Fuhs and others who watch trends in transportation. For years, transportation departments would build new lanes, only to see them fill up almost immediately. Tolled lanes, often with prices that change according to demand, are a better way to ensure drivers have a reliable trip.

The other big reason for expanding toll lanes has to do with widespread public unwillingness to raise the gas taxes that pay for transportation projects. For agencies lacking money to build a new lane from scratch, tolled lanes are a way to partially pay for new road efforts.

Dynamic Pricing Affects Driver Behavior

Tolls also serve an important purpose: managing demand by price, said Gian-Claudia Sciara, of the Urban Land Use and Transportation Policy Center at the University of California, Davis.

The basic idea: In order to keep traffic flowing in the express lane, there should only be a certain quantity of cars. If there is a lot of extra room in the lane, the price to enter is low. If space is getting tight, the price increases, discouraging drivers from entering.

"It's similar to how you would pay more for an airplane ticket during holidays," said Sciara, or why mobile networks encourage weekend and evening use, when the network is less congested, by offering free minutes.

In the early days of the movement, transportation departments often took underused existing High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, and transformed them to toll lanes. The lanes Swisher worked on for I-25 were former HOV lanes.

Now, more and more cities are adding lanes knowing at the outset they'll be tolled. The Colorado Department of Transportation has plans to add tolled express lanes on C470, I-70 in the mountains with a peak period shoulder lane, and on US 36 from Denver to Boulder. It is also extending the existing tolled lane on I-25 further north, and investigating an express toll lane on I-70 east from the intersection with I-25 to Tower Road.

Credit Colorado Department of Transportation, used with permission
Colorado Department of Transportation
Traffic headed into the Eisenhower tunnel on I-70.

The news that a toll lane is coming to a highway near you concerns many drivers, said CDOT spokeswoman Megan Castle. She wanted drivers to know that express lanes do not mean the entire road will be tolled, and that toll lanes are always additional to existing lanes.

"Any time CDOT is going to offer an express lane, they are never going to take away a free lane," Castle said.

Disapproval At First, But Opinion Often Shifts

In any city, the announcement that express toll lanes are coming is typically met with opposition, said Ginger Goodin, a senior research engineer at Texas A&M's transportation institute. Goodin has evaluated express toll lane projects in many cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles and Houston. Goodin knows of over 20 express toll lanes in existence in at least 12 cities across the country, and said 20 more are in development.

Often during toll lane construction, she said, "you start seeing dropping public support. But what we have also mapped, once it is in place and people start using it, six months to a year, a ramp-up period, then you get public support."

Credit Colorado Department of Transportation
Colorado Department of Transportation
A screenshot of Colorado DOT's plan for US 36 between Denver and Boulder. Express toll lanes are in pink, existing toll lanes are highlighted in blue.

While some toll lanes have bumpy starts and need tweaking, both Goodin and Fuhs, the consultant, said most of them end up working well and often gaining in popularity over time.

"The difficult part is, can you ride that wave of negative criticism. There's going to be a lot of pressure to just open the lane to everybody," said Goodin.

One of the most common criticisms of such lanes is that they are "Lexus lanes," giving the wealthy a faster transit time while the 99 percent suffers in the slow lanes. But studies have found that drivers from a wide range of incomes end up using the lanes when they really need a reliable travel option. Also, by offering a faster option for buses, those that use public transit also often benefit.

While Goodin said she does not see equity as a significant issue right now, she sees it becoming more so in the future, as additional drivers get on the road.

"In congested corridors, if you continue to experience growth and want to maintain a consistent travel speed, you are going to have to keep raising the price [to use the express lane]."

At some point, this may price out certain drivers, she said.

In the meantime, Front Range residents, like drivers living in crowded cities across the country, will likely become increasingly familiar with express toll lanes.

The new I-70 toll lane in the mountains, which will open a shoulder lane running eastbound from Empire Junction to Idaho Springs during peak travel times, will be under construction beginning this fall. The transportation department says it expects it to be operational by fall 2015 – just in time for ski season.

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