Recently, many elected officials in Northern Colorado have led the charge against tolling on I-25. We think they are making a big mistake – that will lead to fewer choices for commuters and more congestion.
Attempts to solve traffic problems by adding more lanes have not been very successful. We can see this a few miles to the south. Despite the “T-Rex” expansion completed in 2006, I-25 in the heart of this area now experiences severe weekday congestion. Clearly, the expansion did not provide a long-term solution!
We all understand that if you offer something for free that really has a cost, demand will exceed supply. Now, society has decided that some things should be collectively paid for with tax dollars. The two authors of this article have widely differing views on the appropriate levels of public expenditures in areas like education and health care.
One area where we do agree is that there would be great benefit from bringing more market forces to transportation. Our roads are paid for by a complicated mix of gas tax, sales tax, property tax, registration and other fees. Switching more of the costs to user fees would be fairer –those who use more pay more – and would also help reduce congestion, reduce the need for infrastructure investments, and increase transit ridership.
When a free lane gets overloaded, it switches to stop and go traffic. When drivers are charged a toll that increases when traffic gets heavy, people make different decisions. Some switch trips to less congested times or take different routes. Others carpool or use transit. The highway keeps flowing. SR 91 in Orange County, California provides an example. This is a 12-lane highway, with 4 free lanes and 2 tolled express lanes in each direction. During rush hour, the 2 express lanes carry nearly as many vehicles as the 4 free lanes.
Colorado has begun to move toward roadway pricing. In 2006, the I-25 HOV lane was converted to a High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane, selling unused capacity to toll paying drivers. Right now, one HOT lane in each direction is under construction along US 36 between Denver and Boulder. US 36 will combine a toll lane with Bus Rapid Transit service, allowing transit riders faster and more frequent service than they could get from a train. If we had just added a free lane in each direction, the free lane would eventually fill up, giving no long-term benefits to drivers and there would be no platform for faster transit service.
We know that some Northern Colorado political leaders have claimed that there is inequity in funding, asking ”why should we have to pay tolls when others don’t?” But they are missing two major points. First, others are and will be paying – tolls are already charged on the I-25 HOT lanes, are helping pay for US 36, and are planned for C-470 and I-70. More importantly – those areas that got their roads expanded without tolls are suffering from it. As T-Rex commuters sitting in traffic watch travelers on US 36 and other corridors get an alternative to congestion, they will wish they had HOT lanes instead. Northern Colorado should not make the same mistake.
Will Toor is director of Transportation Policy at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project , Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.