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High-Tech Tolling Could Be Colorado’s Traffic Fix

Sensors and algorithms will soon change the way traffic moves along two of the state’s busy highways in an effort to cut down on congestion.

(TNS) — Toll lanes along U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder and a nearby segment of Interstate 25 will get a high-tech upgrade starting this fall as part of a test to more effectively relieve traffic tie-ups and provide more reliable travel times for motorists.

If it works in those heavily traveled stretches of highway, so-called dynamic tolling that sets prices based on traffic volume and speed could be rolled out to various other highway corridors in Colorado where similar toll lanes are currently being built or are in the planning stages, such as the Central 70 project in Globeville, the Gap project on I-25 south of Castle Rock and the soon-to-be expanded C-470 in Douglas County.

“This is the most technologically advanced way to respond to what is going on out there on the road,” said David Spector, director of the Colorado High Performance Transportation Enterprise, a division of Colorado Department of Transportation and the state’s tolling authority. “If the goal is actually managing congestion, the best way to do that is responding to traffic volume.”

On Wednesday, the CDOT tolling authority board voted to begin a trial run of new roadway technology to monitor road conditions on U.S. 36 and a small portion of I-25 in downtown Denver starting this fall, with the hopes that it will get a permanent nod by 2020.

Dynamic tolling, which will be used alongside free general-purpose lanes, employs sensors and other measuring devices to gauge how much traffic is on the road at any given time and at what speed it is moving. If the system detects a slowdown in the managed lane, tolls go up to dissuade drivers from making the situation worse. When the managed lanes are moving freely, tolls decrease.

Drivers are alerted to the price of using the managed lane by overhead signs before they enter the lane.

Advocates say it’s a more precise congestion-management approach than what is in place now in the managed lanes between Denver and Boulder, where toll rates are set according to the time of day (rush hour versus off-peak travel periods, for example). They say rates people pay under the new system will be similar for the most part to what drivers pay now, with the current cap of $15.76 on a one-way trip for those using transponders, and $23.64 for those charged by license plate number, remaining in effect.

Thad Noll, a board member of CDOT’s tolling authority, said dynamic tolling is no different than the demand-based way many business sectors, including airlines and hotels, set fares or rates.

“This is a new thing in the transportation world,” he said of CDOT’s foray into the technology. “But I think this is a growing pain we’ll get through.”

CDOT executive director Michael Lewis said dynamic tolling is a more accurate way of measuring traffic conditions and responding in a way that helps alleviate lane crowding, something that will become even more critical as the state continues to grow.

“If you use fixed pricing, you can’t adjust for real-time conditions,” he said Wednesday. “What this is about is squeezing out the best reliability on these corridors that we can.”

The I-70 Mountain Express Lane through Idaho Springs uses a form of dynamic tolling, Spector said, but the changes in toll rates in that corridor are made manually by state transportation employees as they observe traffic building from a control center. True dynamic tolling, he said, is automated and uses software and algorithms to more precisely anticipate traffic patterns as they unfold.

In the U.S. 36 and I-25 corridor between Boulder and Denver, concessionaire Plenary Roads Denver, which operates and maintains the highway under a public-private partnership arrangement with CDOT, will be installing radar devices and trip travel indicators and will use existing tolling equipment to measure traffic volume and speeds on the roadway.

Both U.S. 36 and I-25 have free general purpose lanes alongside the managed lanes for those drivers not willing to pay to use the road. But reliability in the general purpose lanes cannot be controlled nearly as easily as traffic flow in the toll lanes because there is no cost of entry.

Vehicles with three or more occupants can use managed lanes in Colorado for free.

Nick Wood, assistant research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said dynamic pricing in toll lanes is becoming more common throughout the United States, with systems already in place in Florida, Texas and Virginia.

“You can more nimbly respond to congestion with dynamic tolling,” he said. “Otherwise, you are more wedded to a fixed schedule.”

Capping the toll in Colorado will probably come as a relief for price-sensitive motorists. And CDOT is probably not looking for the bad headlines that hit the Virginia Department of Transportation late last year after it launched its dynamic tolling system on Interstate 66 outside of Washington, D.C., with no cap. Tolls escalated to as high as $40 for a one-way trip as congestion mounted. David Caudill, division administrator for tolling operations at VDOT, said tolls still go that high when traffic gets bad.

“If people really have to get somewhere, that’s going to weigh into their decision to pay,” he said.

The proof of dynamic tolling’s positive impact is in the data, Caudill said. According to a report published by VDOT in April, travel speeds on I-66 averaged 51.3 mph during morning commutes compared with 46.7 mph a year earlier. And afternoon commutes improved from an average of 47.9 mph to 55 mph under dynamic tolling.

Meanwhile, speeds and times of travel on parallel arterial roadways near I-66 weren’t negatively affected under the new system.

On Wednesday, tolling authority board member Rocky Scott asked Christian Guevara, Plenary’s vice president of operations, the question that many had on their minds about dynamic tolling: “So there will be more congestion if we don’t do this?”

“Yes,” Guevara replied.

©2018 The Denver Post Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.