January 21, 2020

Denver Post Editorial on Toll Roads

The Denver Post today editorialized on CDOT proposals to construct toll lanes on C-470 and elsewhere. One key problem with CDOT’s proposed toll lanes on C-470, I-225, and other regional highways is that they won’t do much if anything for congestion. The basic principle is that congestion on the free lanes drives folks to pay the tolls in the new toll lanes. If the toll lanes are congested, people won’t pay tolls to use them. In other words, toll lanes don’t do much to reduce congestion precisely because they are managed to keep the volume low. This is the same motivation for the non-compete agreements that have received some attention lately in the blogosphere (see part one and part two of unbossed’s discussion and this Daily Kos post), the media, and in the state legislature.

According to the Post’s editorial, Pam Hutton of CDOT argues that we should build toll lanes where we can (presumably financing them in part based on projected toll revenues) and that doing something is better than doing nothing. I don’t think that’s right, since building toll lanes now will actually impede our ability to relieve congestion in the future. Once the toll lanes are built and private investors or whoever else has a financial stake in their continued operation as toll lanes, we aren’t likely to convert them into congestion relief lanes for a long, long time, and we’ll use up space that could have been used for congestion relief. In other words, building toll lanes that do little for congestion now is not better than nothing. It’s actually worse because it doesn’t help the problem and precludes options that might actually help at some point in the future.

Of course CDOT’s argument about the proposed superhighway through Golden is even worse. Under the best of circumstances it will require hundreds of millions of dollars of public money to subsidize construction of a superhighway that, according to all the traffic studies and models, will do little to improve congestion in the northwest quadrant.