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El Paso County Commissioners double down on toll-lane objections

El Paso County Commissioners approved a resolution Tuesday formally objecting to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s plan to add a single toll lane in each direction on I-25 between Castle Rock and Monument. The resolution says in part “constructing the added third lane as a toll managed lane is simply a poor fit…”

The final Environmental Assessment (EA) released April 27, provides only two options: Build a toll lane or do nothing at all.

Mind the Gap

Commissioners noted that during CDOT’s meetings in El Paso County citizens “overwhelmingly voiced objections” to a third tolled lane, noting also that El Paso County voters and the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority approved $15 million in tax money to build a third lane.

The focus on only adding a toll lane disturbs Commissioner Peggy Littleton, who expressed concerns about what voters in El Paso County knew when they voted to contribute tax money to the project. “This unelected board, the Highway Commission sets the fees,” she said, “To me it’s double taxation.”

Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said, “CDOT has not done the simulation work for other configurations.” Questioning whether the toll lane option provides the greatest degree of safety he continued, “The number one priority for these highways is safety. I would ask CDOT to research whether a 4-lane highway is the best configuration to provide that.”

The current design can accommodate 4 lanes in each direction according to project lead John Hall, CDOT’s Region 2 Resident Engineer. Bridges have to be build wide enough for 8 lanes because CDOT admits that even with a toll lane, by 2040 traffic in the two general-purpose lanes will be right back where it is today.

The EA says, “The infrastructure improvements and construction footprint of the alternatives [of three lanes] are comparable. Both include the same bridge replacements, wildlife underpasses, walls, lighting, and power and communications equipment.” According to CDOT the cost to install the tolling infrastructure is about $5 million.

CDOT’s goal is to speed travel mostly for express lane drivers willing to pay tolls as well as carpoolers and public transit. CDOT never stated toll amounts in its public meetings. Instead representatives stressed that tolls “would be set by the users.” Their goal, said Hall, is to entice drivers into the toll lane, but not too many of them.

“Twenty of percent of people is what we want in this lane. We don’t want zero or five percent,” he said, “We’re going to adapt [the tolls]. “It’s not a revenue generating source. Trip reliability is the reason, that’s how we’re going to build and manage it,” Hall continued.

CDOT’s High Performance Transportation Enterprise 2017 Annual Report showed toll rates on US 36 and I-25 Express Lanes, ranging between $0.35 to $5.15 per segment. US 36 has 7 tolled segments.

On January 24, on Interstate 66 in Virginia, Washington’s Top News reported, “Single drivers who began the nine-mile trip from the Beltway to Rosslyn or D.C. at 8:30 a.m. were charged $46.75…the Virginia Department of Transportation has pointed out that the system is working as it’s designed. They increase to discourage drivers from choosing the [toll] lanes in order to ease traffic flow.”

Tamara Rollison, CDOT Strategic Communication Program Leader says “speeds have increased 20 to 29 percent” during peak times on US-36. But this number is an average across all lanes, she admits. The benefit to non-toll lane drivers is difficult to quantify without data about speeds in each of the three lanes.

In a 2018 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on an $830 million toll lane project in Atlanta reporter David Wickert wrote about the first phase of the project on I-75 that opened a year ago.

“About 9,000 to 11,000 vehicles use the I-75 express lanes each day, according to GDOT,” Wickert writes, “At morning rush hour, traffic moves about 10-15 mph faster in the express lanes than in the regular lanes. In the afternoon, express lane traffic often moves more than 20 mph faster.”  “Southbound afternoon traffic in the regular lanes has moved a few miles an hour faster in recent weeks than it did during the same period a year ago, before the express lanes opened. Morning northbound traffic was less than 1 mph faster,” he continued.

Detailed data on actual lane speeds here is not found in the monthly reports filed by the operator of the US-36 and I-25 toll lanes, Plenary Roads. Traffic volume and toll collections are. Requests for lane-speed data to CDOT by Complete Colorado going back as far as Nov., 2017 have gone unanswered.

Another claim CDOT uses to justify the toll lane configuration involves public transit. The EA says, “Lack of travel time reliability and longer travel times through the Gap adversely affects reliable transit use.”

“The support for transit options is evidenced by growing ridership on CDOT’s Bustang South Line express bus service, which began in July 2015 and today carries more than 55,000 riders per year with just 7 weekday trips and 2 weekend trips between Colorado Springs and Denver,” says the EA.

While 55,000 riders per year sounds like a lot, it’s really not when compared to the current 85,000 daily vehicle trips in the corridor. Bustang buses carry 51 passengers each, so it now serves an average of 150 passengers per day, or 0.176 percent of daily commutes. To move even 10 percent of commuters would require 166 daily buses.

The official comment period for the Environmental Assessment ends Tuesday, May 29.

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