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Express Bus Station Features Prominently in Colorado Express Lanes Project

Bustang, the interregional bus service launched by the Colorado Department of Transportation in 2015, will have a station in the middle of Interstate 25 as part of a $350 million plan to add toll lanes between Johnstown and Fort Collins.
May 7, 2019, 12pm PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Miles Blumhardt of the Fort Collins Coloradoan interviewed Jared Fiel, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) about the I-25 North Express Lanes Project which runs from Fort Collins, the state's fourth-largest city, about 14.5 miles south to the Town of Johnstown.

The $350 million project broke ground in Loveland last September and is expected to be completed in 2021. [Can you spot the two statewide elected politicians with shovels in hand who are running for president in this Loveland Reporter-Herald photo?]

The focus of the interview was why the additional lane would be an express (aka toll) lane rather than a general purpose or carpool lane. As with CDOT's sister project on Interstate 25: I-25 South Gap, having to pay to drive on the freeway as a solo motorist is not popular in the Centennial State. More on that aspect of the project is discussed below.

Bustang park-and-ride

Not mentioned in the article is a unique aspect of the project, the construction of Colorado's first middle-of-interstate bus stop near Loveland for Bustang, an interregional express bus service operated by CDOT that began service in July 2015. 

"Riders can park at a new park-and-ride at Kendall Parkway, then walk under the interstate to access the bus station," reported Nicole Brady for The Denver Channel in October.

"This will be a first for Colorado," CDOT spokesperson Fiel said. He added that this could reduce the commute on the Bustang from Fort Collins to Denver by 15 minutes. [The current schedule indicates the trip takes 1 hour and 40 minutes.]

The time-savings comes from the ability of the buses to remain "in the future express lanes, rather than crossing the two other lanes as it pulls off the road," said CDOT construction manager Chris Boespflug, reported Julia Rentsch for the Reporter-Herald last June. He added that very few of these types of freeway express bus stops have been constructed in the U.S. that enable time-savings over more conventional design.

Why a toll lane?

Blumhardt's article is in the form of a Q & A by with CDOT spokesperson Fiel of CDOT. There are two reasons for charging tolls on the new lane: more effective lane management and better financing.

"Essentially, if we put up another general purpose or free lane, that would just become congested," explains Fiel.

"The express lane allows drivers a choice of using HOV, tolls or Bustang or riding in the free lanes. What we have seen by adding express lanes elsewhere is reduced congestion in the other general purpose lanes because a certain percentage will use the express lanes, including buses."

The toll will be variable, based on the level of congestion, i.e., congestion pricing will be applied.

 QuestionDid this approach speed up the project getting completed?

Answer: Yes, in addition to other municipalities helping fund the project. This project wasn’t expected to get done until 2035, and now it is scheduled to be completed in 2021. We took out a $50 million loan from anticipated toll revenue (CDOT expects $50 million in tolls over 20 years, which will pay back the loan and help with lane maintenance) to help us do the big package instead of doing it bridge by bridge.

Not mentioned by Fiel is that the project was awarded a $15 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant that was likely influenced by the application of congestion pricing to the project.

And the universal question, it would seem, asked by motorists on highway widening projects built by public agencies:

Question: We are paying state and federal gas taxes to pay for roads and bridges, so why now are we being asked to pay again in the form of tolls for the third lanes?

The assumption in the question that motorist user fees pay for all the costs of road building, maintenance, and enforcement, so tolling amounts to a form of "double taxation."

AnswerWe would be waiting until 2035 for the funds for this, if we waited to use just regular gas tax. The 22-cent-per-gallon tax in Colorado has not increased since 1991, and the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal rate has been in place since 1993, and cars have become more fuel-efficient, there are electric vehicles and more people using the roads. Look at it this way: Imagine paying your mortgage with the same paycheck you received in 1991.

Fiel's answer suggests there may be a silver lining to not increasing fuel taxes - that tolling will be considered. As Fiel explained in his first answer, tolling not only brings in revenue, but enables better road management due to pricing.

Related in Planetizen:

Hat tip to IBTTA Smart Brief.
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Published on Thursday, May 2, 2019 in The Coloradoan
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