Vail Skiers Targeted as Colorado Proposes $30 Congestion Toll

The U.S. Alpine Ski Team trains on Golden Eagle at the Vail Resort on Nov. 6, 2010, in Vail, Colorado.

Photographer: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

As if $150-a-day lift tickets, $165-a-day lessons and $40-a-day equipment rentals weren’t enough, the cost of a ski vacation in Colorado is about to get pricier.

Skiers driving to Denver from Vail, Aspen and other resorts beginning in December can use a 13-mile express toll lane carved out of a shoulder on eastbound Interstate 70. The route is estimated to save 30 minutes on a drive that routinely backs up for miles during busy weekends and holidays. The proposed toll could range from $3 to $30 as the road becomes more congested.

As Congress dithers over refinancing the depleted Highway Trust Fund, transportation planners nationwide are turning to toll lanes to pay for projects designed to relieve gridlock. More than 42 states allow such fees. Pricing that varies the toll on a highway according to congestion is relatively new, with few examples in the U.S.

“This is uncharted territory for a toll lane,” said Megan Castle, communications manager for the Colorado High-Performance Transportation Enterprise. “This is not daytime commuter traffic -- it's weekend recreational traffic. It’s a first in the nation.”

Colorado’s Interstate 70 is the only direct way to get from Vail’s powdery back bowls to the state’s capital and Denver International Airport on the plains. The expressway is known for hours-long tie ups on weekends and holidays and frequently the subject of water-cooler complaining on Mondays.

Road Weary

The traffic jams cause resorts, residents and businesses along the 144-mile mountain route to lose at least $839 million a year and prompt skiers to forgo the Rockies for other states, according to study by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation.

Road weary vacationers said they would fork over the higher rates for relief.

“I would hope it would save more than 30 minutes, but without a doubt I would pay,” said Brad Sampson, 34, a Denver-based surgical instruments salesman who skis more than 20 days a season. “There are multiple weekends I have decided not to go skiing because I didn’t want to deal with the horrible traffic.”

That trend is worrisome to resorts that depend on out of towners for one in five visits. Trips year round to Colorado’s mountain resorts account for about 25 percent of the $18.6 billion visitors spent in the state in 2014, according to a report by Portland, Oregon-based Dean Runyan Associates.

“There is a fear that the worse the traffic gets, the more Colorado develops a reputation for having a traffic issue,” said Margaret Bowes, program manager for the Frisco, Colorado-based I-70 Coalition, a group of 28 towns, counties and businesses along the corridor.

Credit Cards

The express shoulder lane will only be open about 72 days a year and a transponder inside vehicles will automatically charge travelers’ credit cards. State workers watching traffic on cameras mounted over the highway will change the rate -- which will flash on overhead screens -- to assure traffic flows at 45 miles per hour. Drivers without a transponder are billed the toll and a processing fee mailed to the address listed under their license plate registration information.

Travelers can choose to use the other two lanes free of charge. Toll revenue will help defray a $24.6 million loan the state took out as its part of the $72 million project, said Castle, of the transportation enterprise, which is a division of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The $3 to $30 proposed toll, which the state transportation board will consider Oct. 14, would cost about $2.31 per mile, a rate at the top end of toll roads, said Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy at the Los Angeles, California-based Reason Foundation, a nonprofit research organization.

Needed Capacity

Planners worked overtime for years to devise a fix to relieve gridlock on I-70, parts of which are 50 years old. Options included widening the highway and building a $17-billion monorail line. Both were considered too expensive.

In April, the state’s transportation department finished a $161 million project to widen a tunnel in each direction near Idaho Springs where traffic’s backed up both ways on weekends since the 1970s.

“We predict within 10 to 20 years we will be back to where we are today,” said Bowes, of the I-70 Coalition. “No one thinks these projects are going to fix the problem, but they are going to give us some much-needed capacity.”

-- With assistance from Esmé E. Deprez in Santa Barbara.

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