As locals know all too well, the “bugaboo” on Coloradans’ minds is not a Canadian mountain range but the frustrating traffic congestion we all experience heading up I-70 to play in the high country.
Before the end of this calendar year, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) will inaugurate the country’s first toll lane serving recreational rather than commuter users. Dubbed the I-70 Mountain Express Lane, the facility will consist of a single eastbound lane added to the highway from Empire through the Veterans Memorial Tunnels east of Idaho Springs, approximately 13 miles in length. It will operate for a maximum of 73 days throughout the year during peak demand periods for eastbound traffic, typically Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. CDOT anticipates it will save 30 minutes of travel time. Drivers can choose to use the Express Lane or the two free lanes, which will always be available.
The I-70 Mountain Express Lane will toll all vehicles that use it. There will not be free carpool or HOV access as vehicles in this corridor average more than three passengers already. Tolls will be collected electronically through an “ExpressToll” account or through a “License Plate Toll” (LPT). CDOT uses ExpressToll, a part of the E-470 Highway Authority, for toll road billing on all Express Lanes, E-470 and the Northwest Parkway.
LPT is a toll lane user who has not registered with ExpressToll. LPT users are subject to a surcharge to cover administrative costs for Express Lane billing, so their bill from ExpressToll will be higher than that of someone who has set up an ExpressToll account.
ExpressToll registrants can obtain a free sticker for use on the I-70 Mountain Express Lane. For a $15 fee, ExpressToll will also provide a switchable transponder for those who want to use Express Lanes in the metro area and take advantage of free travel where Express Lanes have free HOV. The “switchable” aspect of the transponder refers to a situation where the driver can switch from tolling status to free status in an Express Lane when the vehicle contains the minimum number of passengers.
The I-70 Mountain Express Lane uses a responsive pricing system, i.e., responsive to demand subject to an overall price cap. Rates for ExpressToll account holders will range from $3 to $30, with the additional LPT surcharge imposed at a sliding scale of $3.75 to $10. Thus, the total LPT charge will range from $6.75 to $40.
Physically, this new eastbound lane has been created by widening the highway shoulder, restriping the inside shoulder lane, and reconstructing and modifying two bridges near Idaho Springs. CDOT has also added signage and tolling equipment including fiber-optic lines.
New signs near Empire, the west terminus of the lane, will tell drivers whether the Express Lane is open for use and, if so, what the toll rate will be. Drivers will have a four-hour grace period during which they may leave the Express Lane to stop for services without being charged a second time. At the east end, eastbound drivers who access the left-most lane to exit I-70 for U.S. 6 (Clear Creek Canyon) will not be subject to a toll. Similarly, drivers who are diverted to the lane by emergency service providers will not be charged during the time it takes to clear traffic through the area.
Interestingly, CDOT does not expect to open the lane during heavy snowstorms due to safety concerns. When the Express Lane is not in use, it will be used as a shoulder available for emergencies.
Those seeking additional information about this new facility can find it at the CDOT website (www.codot.gov/programs/expresslanes/corridors/i-70-west).