To Beat Congestion, Colorado Can’t Rely on the Same Bag of Road Expansion Tricks

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

An additional 1.2 million people will call Colorado home by 2030, according to the State Demography Office, and they’ll have to get around somehow. No one wants to sit in traffic, but unless Colorado DOT changes its 1950s approach to congestion management, people will be spending more time behind the wheel.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Instead of sticking with the same old road expansion strategies, Colorado should be converting highway lanes to high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes and putting that revenue toward better transit, according to a new report from the Southwestern Energy Efficient Project [PDF].

The report examined the expansion of I-25 known as T-REX. After CDOT finished widening I-25 in 2005, it took less than five years for the lanes to fill back up with cars. It was a classic case of induced demand — the principle that adding lanes to congested roads will simply lead more people to drive.

A better solution is to get more out of the roads we already have. By turning conventional highway lanes into HOT lanes, argues SWEEP, roads will be able to handle more people in the same amount of space, and Colorado will avoid road widenings it can’t afford.

“Our message is that people complain, obviously, about congestion and traffic right now,” said Mike Salisbury, who co-authored the study. “And what’s gonna happen in the next 20 years when you add a million more people in the Denver metro area? It’s going to be infinitely worse unless you do something to allow this corridor to handle more people.”

The average commuting vehicle in the Denver region contains 1.08 people, according to the Denver Regional Council of Governments. Basically, almost everyone is driving solo. What if incentives shift so carpooling and transit become more attractive?

SWEEP proposes a system where cars with three or more people would use these managed lanes for free, while single-occupancy vehicles would pay a use fee that varies according to demand, resulting in more people using I-25 in fewer cars.

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 11.22.21 AM
Managed lanes would move more people in fewer vehicles than current general purpose (GP) lanes. Image: SWEEP

CDOT could raise between $13 million and $20 annually from HOT lanes on I-25, according to the report. That money should fund better bus, bike, and pedestrian connections to light rail along the corridor, as well as transit passes and fare incentives to increase ridership, the authors conclude.

“While it’s not a silver bullet, there’s certainly potential to get more people to use the various lines that serve that corridor… there’s a lot of potential to get more people to use transit,” Salisbury said.

Currently, RTD’s E, F, and H lines along I-25 carry about 43,000 trips each weekday. Not too shabby, but they have room for more. The lines operate at 64 percent of capacity, on average, the report found. Transit is “doing a lot of heavy lifting on the corridor already, and I think there’s room for it to do a little bit more,” Salisbury said.

Image: SWEEP
Moving people instead of cars is a lot cheaper than widening highways, which creates more traffic anyway. Image: SWEEP

Rather than convert existing lanes to HOT lanes, it’s far more common for DOT’s to widen a highway first — like what CDOT did on U.S. 36, and is trying to do on I-70. The politics of repurposing existing highway lanes can be tricky, and so can the red tape.

Right now, tolling existing lanes requires the approval of local governments and the feds, Salisbury said. But that’s not an excuse to avoid tough but necessary decisions.

“I think it’s incumbent upon CDOT to think creatively about how to make [I-25] work better for everybody, and they’re gonna be the lead agency on this,” Salisbury said. “We can’t sit around and wait for automated platooning vehicles to magically solve capacity problems. We understand that this is not going to be a politically easy thing, but we think it makes much more sense than any of the other alternatives out there.”

  • TakeFive

    I’d take issue with some of the premises.

    After CDOT finished widening I-25 in 2005, it took less than five years for the lanes to fill back up with cars. It was a classic case of induced demand — the principle that adding lanes to congested roads will simply lead more people to drive.

    I’d disagree. Using a base line of 2001 is a bit disingenuous. They expanded I-25 based as much on projected needs as existing congestion.

    Of course freeway expansion induces more drivers; they don’t build the new lanes to just sit there and look pretty. Initially, additional drivers come predominantly from those who had been clogging up nearby arterial and neighborhood streets. More importantly, over time it was the build up in new arrivals to the Denver Metro area. New people driving derives from the fact that every year thousands of young people become eligible to get their drivers license.

    By turning conventional highway lanes into HOT lanes, argues SWEEP, roads will be able to handle more people in the same amount of space

    I highly doubt that – but I haven’t yet read all of SWEEP’s pdf to see why they claim that. I get the benefits of having a lane of guaranteed free-flowing traffic but in all likelihood it reduces overall capacity.

    • TakeFive

      /sigh… Why do smart people go to such tortured excess to make things so messy by conflating issues. After reading a few more pages, why didn’t they just simply say there’s no ability or capacity for additional widening along that stretch of road? Stated simply “since they’ll never ever widen I-25 in that stretch we’ve got to find better alternatives” period full stop

      Moving along to a more positive and novel idea now being tried elsewhere check out this recent post: http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=7865641#post7865641

      • The reason that I-25 south of the city has more traffic than it did before T-Rex was built is simply that there was a tremendous amount of growth along I-25, tens of thousands of new single-family homes as well as tens of thousands of new apartments, and hundreds of new office buildings as well as dozens of major medical facilities and a dozen new shopping malls too. Several of the transit stops now have higher-density TOD development right next to them, and many of those people drive rather than riding the train or also drive to places rather than downtown.

        We have tolled and carpool lanes in the north metro area, where we still don’t have our long-promised FasTracks trains even though we have paid for them since 2004. The I-70 proposal also has tolled and HOV lanes. In the north and northwest metro those toll lanes are scarcely-used, as it seems that a majority of north metro drivers would rather sit in traffic for 10 or 20 minutes rather than pay a couple dollars extra to save some time.

        The Ditch the Ditch plan would choke I-25 between I-70 and I-76 with no room for expansion other than starting to tear down commercial buildings, and any such expansion or even increase in congestion would negatively-impact Globeville residents and the workforce across that area due to more exhaust and particulate emissions, as well as increased congestion and increased emissions on Washington, Broadway, Pecos, and Federal too.

        Remember that we northsiders don’t have our trains and RTD is so broke that they are cutting bus routes in the north metro too. All we have to commute with is our cars. Perhaps if you congest our only freeway access to the city to the breaking point a lot of us will get the idea that we are not wanted and quit coming downtown?

        What about all the residents living and working along I-270 and I-76, which outnumber those living in Elyria and Swansea considerably? Don’t their lives matter at all to the Ditch the Ditch crowd? How about Globeville and North Washington residents and those working there, do their lives matter to the Ditch crowd? Nope, not at all, the Ditch crowd is a rather selfish bunch who apparently live in a vacuum insulated from the rest of us.

        • TakeFive

          Mark… I love your comment. Thanks for the response.

          I might quibble here and there but for the most part you were Spot On.

  • Brian Schroder

    There’s no need to improve our highways or roads except to make them safer for every user. People choose to sit in traffic and its up to them to get out of their cars or move closer to where they work. With average home listing in Highlands Ranch at $479,900 and 479,450.00 in Denver why live in Highlands Ranch unless you like driving and sitting in traffic? When things stop making sense people start making sense.

    • TakeFive

      Hoo-boy… The numero uno reason in deciding where a family wants to live (Mom is the driving decider btw) is the schools/school district. That’s especially true for DougCo schools and Cherry Creek School District. There’s also VG private schools whether you live in Cherry Hills Village, Highlands Ranch or have good access to Parker Rd/Arapahoe Rd area.

      What if Mom and Dad have jobs in different parts of town – who wins? What if Dad’s forever job downtown goes away but he can find a job along the SE Corridor shortly after moving to an in-town location? BTW, the costs of selling/buying/moving for a family of 3/4/5 is about 10% of the Selling Price or more. For many that’s not inconsequential.

      By all means it’s good to encourage transit ridership. You might recall the reason FasTracks passed is from the wild success of opening the 1st suburb to city line along Sante Fe. LRT car seats were gone with the first stop and the visuals of the Park n Ride being full and overflowing into the neighborhoods made every Mayor in the Metro area want a piece of the action.

      The good news according this piece is that ridership along the SE Corridor is up a lot. Last number I saw was 33,000 per day but Sachs is reporting 43,000 per weekday. That’s a 30% increase. I have the hardest problem finding ridership numbers for RTD which is frustrating; with Valley Metro it’s an easy peasy point and click. http://www.valleymetro.org/publications_reports/ridership_reports_vmr

    • The felony crime rate in most Denver neighborhoods averages 10 times what it does in Highlands Ranch or Broomfield and frankly I am tired of getting my car stolen, my car stereo stolen, my lawnmover stolen, my chain saw stolen, and my house and garage broken into, while my wife doesn’t feel safe walking the streets in Denver either, which is why don’t live there.

      Now where we do live is only 30 minutes to DIA, 30 minutes to Boulder, and 30 minutes to Longmont where two of my kids work, as well as only 40 minutes to downtown most of the time and we are far happier living like this than we once were living in the city. My biggest complaint is that when it was time to build our long-promised FasTracks trains RTD was flat broke, after we had paid into the thing since 2004 just like everyone else.

      Think the commute here is bad you should have seen the commute from the nice suburban neighborhoods to downtown back in 1975 in Detroit, a city which then had no trains and only a few bus routes.

      Let me ask you a question and see if you know the answer. You are staying in Paramus and you have a 9:30 AM flight out of LaGuardia just 15 miles away as the crow flies. What time do you have to leave for the airport?

      • Brian Schroder

        Let’s add this to your crimeverse. Only 30% of murders were committed last year in Denver, Colorado. Yes, More in Denver than in the rest of the state, but how does that make you feel, that 70% happened outside of Denver? Mass shooting is Colorado? Have they happened in Denver? Remember Jessica Ridgeway did that happen in the city of Denver? What about the plot against Vista Ridge High School in Highlands Ranch? Crime can happen anywhere and it can be just as devastating and even more horrific outside of the city. Don’t try and fool yourself. Safety from crime is an illusion and be prepared to deal with crime anywhere you live. The next Elizabeth Smart incident could happen next door to anyone anywhere.

        I don’t think the commute in Denver is bad. And I think it’s pathetic that people complain about parking and sitting in traffic when they are choosing to do so. Does everyone not realize they choose where they live, raise a family and work? It is not forced upon them by some grand conspiracy.

        I’d say it’s hypocritical and selfish to ask for help in decreasing one’s own commute time from the government. It’s no big secret that if you live farther from schools, jobs, or other resources that your commute time will increase as population increases. Do people think that they live in a bubble insulated from time and population?

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