I-70 traffic flows freely as toll lane opens

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Long-awaited lane debuts

By Jessi Marlatt

The eastbound peak-period toll lane on Interstate 70 made its long-awaited debut Sunday, and returning skiers found the traffic flow smooth and steady throughout the day. 

The 13-mile lane, built at a cost of $78 million, officially opened for the first time at 9:06 a.m., an advisory on the Colorado Department of Transportation website indicated. A snowstorm scuttled the lane's scheduled opening on Saturday, but the snowfall ensured a healthy number of skiers would be traveling I-70 on Sunday.

A Courant reporter heading east on I-70 about 3:30 p.m. observed steady and brisk traffic flow over the length of the added lane, with plenty of vehicles entering the toll lane at its starting point at Empire. Though eastbound traffic had slowed to 10 mph near Loveland Ski Area, speeds improved markedly near Georgetown. 

Signs informed eastbound drivers that the toll lane was open and indicated a toll amount, but CDOT is waiving all charges for the time being. Vehicles in all eastbound lanes traveled at the speed limit for most of the 13-mile stretch to the Veterans Memorial Tunnels east of Idaho Springs.

In Idaho Springs, where some businesses had feared better I-70 traffic flow might cut into Sunday sales, Tommyknocker Brewery general manager Brice Bash said business was brisk.

“We have not noticed anything at this point,” Bash said. “This weekend we were still as busy as we would probably normally be.”

Bash added that traffic from the Dew Tour competition in Breckenridge over the weekend might have given the restaurant a bump in business.

“It’s hard to tell if it was just traffic because of that, or just because of people starting to head on vacation …,” he said. “But this weekend we will certainly be able to tell.”

The lane closed Sunday about 6:30 p.m. It will be open up to 73 days a year, and CDOT will evaluate weather and other conditions before making that call. Motorists can sign up for notifications at www.cotrip.org.

“You have to be able to see the lane; if you can’t see it, we can’t have it open,” CDOT spokeswoman Megan Castle said.  

Charges will range from $3 to $30 for vehicles equipped with ExpressToll transponders. The varying rates are intended to regulate the number of vehicles using the lane, which was constructed to accommodate 750 to 900 vehicles per hour. The maximum toll for vehicles without transponders could hit $40.

“It is very important that we have the price change as needed,” Castle said. “Drivers will know what they will be paying as they enter the lane. And the charge will change throughout the day so we don’t get too many cars in there or not enough.”

The lane is designed to provide reliable 40- to 45-mph travel along the 13-mile stretch of I-70 when traffic volume swells — in particular, on Sunday afternoons when thousands of skiers are returning to the Front Range after weekend time on the slopes. Castle said it is the only non-commuter toll lane in the nation, created specifically for motorists on mountain recreational adventures.

Construction of the lane began in July 2014. The lane is separated from the two general-use lanes by a solid white line that is grooved to create noise when tires cross it.