DENVER — Skiers stuck in Colorado highway traffic are getting a new option this winter to bypass the congestion — for a price.
Colorado is converting a highway shoulder lane on a mountainous highway into an express lane. The 13-mile toll lane on Interstate 70 will have flexible pricing, depending on traffic, from $3 to $30.
If approved, the $30 price tag for 13 miles of travel would make the lane one of the nation’s priciest per mile, The Denver Post reported.
I-70 is a major corridor to Colorado’s ski resorts. On winter weekends, skiers can face long delays driving back to Denver.
Some other states have flexible-toll express lanes, but Colorado’s toll idea is unusual because it would apply mostly to winter recreational travelers, not workday commuters. The ski lane would be open only 72 days a year — weekends and Monday holidays.
“Nowhere else in the country do you have a toll lane being turned on almost entirely for weekend recreational traffic,” said Amy Ford, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The express lane is eastbound only, leading from mountains down to Denver. State highway officials point out that the toll wouldn’t go to $30 except in the worst traffic.
“It is entirely dependent on the use and reliability of the lane and what the market could bear. It could never hit that. We don’t know,” Ford said.
The agency is planning public hearings this week to get feedback on the toll rates. Lane construction is already underway, a $72 million project using a mix of a state and federal money. The tolls will be used to pay back a $24.6 million loan.
Highway gridlock has plagued Colorado’s mountain resorts for decades.
Traffic congestion was considered a major reason why Colorado voters rejected the 1976 Winter Olympics. Denver remains the only host city in the history of the Olympics to be awarded the Games but then reject them. The 1976 Winter Olympics went to Innsbruck, Austria, instead.
Almost 40 years later, traffic on I-70 remains a major concern. Mountain tunnels back up for hours on busy winter weekends, despite efforts by resorts to encourage off-peak visits through discounts and incentives.
One traffic plan endorsed this year by state highway officials was to require all drivers, not just commercial trucks, to have winter tires or carry chains. But state lawmakers rejected the snow tire requirement, despite promises it would reduce traffic-clogging accidents.
Margaret Bowes of the I-70 Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group representing mountain towns and resorts along the highway, said Colorado has no choice but to look for unusual ideas to easing mountain traffic. She pointed out that some travelers won’t blink at steep tolls if they’re facing a missed flight or other inconvenience.
“When we’re looking at this lane saving 30 minutes of travel time on a Sunday afternoon, that’s a very big benefit,” Bowes said.