Tolls and a three-lane interstate in each direction it is — at least for now. The Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Michael Lewis announced April 26 that his department is …
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Tolls and a three-lane interstate in each direction it is — at least for now.
The Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Michael Lewis announced April 26 that his department is moving forward with a recommendation to widen the infamous 18-mile stretch of Interstate 25 between Castle Rock and Monument called the Gap by adding one tolled express lane in each direction.
The announcement is part of the agency’s environmental assessment study for the Gap, released online April 27. That study also outlines CDOT’s plans to replace four bridges along the Gap, add four new wildlife crossings and resurface existing lanes, among several other improvements.
“This is a major milestone for CDOT and the I-25 Gap project,” Lewis said.
So, here’s what the road will look like if designs stay as is (which they likely will):
Starting at the center median, CDOT will build a 15-foot shoulder. That’s to provide space for broken-down cars to safely pull off the interstate, Lewis said, or emergency personnel to station vehicles and move left-lane accidents off the roadway.
Then comes the express lane, which will be separated from the general-purpose lanes by a four-foot buffer and rumble strip. Next are two, 12-feet free lanes, and lastly, a 12-foot right shoulder.
A final design decision will come in June or July after a one-month public comment period for the study. Construction could begin by this summer. The toll fare remains unknown, although estimated to be in the range of $3 to $6. Regardless, the rate will fluctuate based on traffic volumes.
The state has conditionally approved $250 million for the project. Douglas County is bringing $10 million, El Paso $15 million, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority $10 million, and CDOT hopes to secure a $65 million, highly competitive federal grant for the project by June.
The Gap hasn’t seen widening since the 1960s despite stark increases in traffic and congestion that often result in accidents and traffic delays. More than 1,800 crashes between 2011 and 2015 resulted in 619 injuries and five fatalities.
And as for how long it takes to travel the Gap, well, that’s anyone’s guess. Trip reliability is one of the top concerns aside from public safety, Lewis said.
If nothing is done by 2040, Lewis said, traveling the Gap during morning rush hour could take 45 minutes, and 70 minutes during the afternoon.
Nearly everyone agrees the Gap is in desperate need of improvements, but not all agree on what that should look like. There remains opposition to both a toll lane and limiting the widening to three lanes each direction.
El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller said: “Four lanes is the way to go.”
“I think that’s what needs to happen, and it needs to happen now,” he said.
The cost of building a fourth lane on the Gap could be as much as $150 million, he said. The total project budget for the three-lane plan is $350 million.
“If we have the chance to get this done for well under $450 million I think we should do it now,” he said.
CDOT held numerous listening session in Colorado Springs, where public reaction to the third tolled lane was bleak. Waller said his constituents view it as double taxation. El Paso County already dedicated $15 million to the project.
“We’re certainly hearing that they do not want to have a third lane tolled. That’s the number one thing that I hear,” Waller said, adding he’d compromise for a toll lane if CDOT agreed to build three general-purpose lanes.
And Castle Rock Town Councilman George Teal, who sat on The Gap’s steering committee, said three lanes is short-sighted. He doubts that would withstand capacity levels even as soon as 2024.
“If the work is completed in 2021, we’re only buying ourselves two years of lack of congestion,” he said. “It’s not a 10-year solution.”
Most of the town’s commuters head north to the Denver metro, Teal said, but employers tell him many of their staff come from south of town.
“So, what’s been going on with the Gap and the delays and the congestion hasn’t probably affected people who live here in Castle Rock, but it’s certainly affected people who work here in Castle Rock and provide services.”
CDOT officials, well aware of the resistance to tolls and the call for four lanes, say there isn’t enough justification to add a fourth lane at this time, but the agency is building the roadway to accommodate adding a fourth lane if that need arises later on.
Bob Wilson, a CDOT spokesman, said it’s too early to know what a project like that would look like, but it may mean converting part of the shoulder to a lane.
Waller speculates CDOT’s interest in the toll lane for the south I-25 corridor is in part an issue of fairness, as the department has used tolls on roads in the northern metro area. He also thinks the agency worries that not installing a toll on the Gap would set a precedent against doing so on future project.
Tamara Rollison, spokeswoman for CDOT, said tolls are not geared toward making money but would help fund maintenance for the corridor.
“The reason is not to generate revenue or to make a profit,” she said. “The reason is to manage the right balance and the right flow of traffic so that we can provide a reliable trip for motorists.”
Tolls are in fact a policy directive within CDOT. A 2013 policy brief says managed lanes should be “strongly considered” on highway projects where congestion is known to be an issue.
Still, some are just glad to hear of anything being done to the Gap. Margie Munoz, general manager at the Outlets at Castle Rock, said about 15 percent of employees use the Gap and 30 percent of shoppers come from the El Paso County region.
“We’re looking forward to just better traffic flow and easing congestions and having our employees and customers have a nicer ride,” she said. “We really support the state’s initiative to make it a safer highway.”
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