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HOV3: When and why two-occupant cars will have to pay to use I-25, US 36 express lanes

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For years, a driver with a single companion could use high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on Interstate 25 without having to pay for the privilege. It was the Colorado Department of Transportation's way of thanking them for pairing up rather than taking separate cars.

But those days are ending. A few years from now, it'll take three people, not two, for a free ride in the HOV lanes on I-25, as well as Highway 36 to Boulder, and CDOT is already in education mode to inform possibly unhappy folks about this impending change.

Just last month, CDOT hiked the toll rates during peak morning hours for the I-25 express lanes. Here are the updated fees:

Of course, to get out of paying, just invite a friend to travel with you when traversing these lanes, at least for now. But as of January 2017, those lanes will be transformed from so-called HOV2 to HOV3 -- meaning that a driver must have two or more passengers with him or else he'll have to pay the same amount as if he was alone.

The same will be true of the express lanes on U.S. 36. Phase I of the project is due for completion by the end of 2014, while Phase II is expected to be finished in late 2015 -- and in the beginning, cars with two folks inside will be able to try them out gratis. But when 2017 dawns, so will the HOV3 requirement.

The second phase of the U.S. 36 project represents something of an experiment for the Colorado Department of Transportation. As CDOT director of communication Amy Ford notes, "it's being constructed by CDOT's first public-private concessionaire" -- Plenary Roads Denver, a team of organizations including construction firms Ames Construction and Granite Construction, engineering designer HDR, maintenance outfit Transfield Services and financial adviser Goldman Sachs.

Plenary "will be paying for about two-thirds of the cost" for Phase II, Ford continues. "They're basically bringing private equity into the project" in exchange for "the tolls on all of U.S. 36 and on existing express lanes on I-25 for fifty years."

That may sound like an excessive pay-out to Plenary, but Ford sees it as a practical way to speed up the process in a big way. "We would not have been able to construct the next phase for probably twenty years" without the private partnership, she estimates. And the deal is already getting national attention, as witnessed by a New York Times piece published last month.

How does the switch from HOV2 to HOV3 fit into this strategy?

Continue for more about the changes in express lanes on I-25 and U.S. 36. "We're looking at how to maintain the best reliability of these lanes," Ford says, "and one is encouraging multi-modal use, including our partnership with RTD. To facilitate bus rapid transit, we need to maintain certain travel speeds in the corridor, and depending on what the volume is, we projected that we would get to the point with HOV2 and single-vehicles paying the toll where it would start clogging the lane up.

"That's where HOV3 comes in," she continues. The concept: More three-person cars will mean fewer vehicles in the express lanes. Add higher fees at peak times, à la the June hikes -- Ford calls it "congestion pricing" -- and the result should be more reliability for RTD and higher speeds for those who pony up to pay for the express lanes.

Which is all good and well -- but what about all those two-person vehicles that will now be charged for using the lanes? Will that cause frustration capable of discouraging the sort of car pooling HOV lanes were created to encourage in the first place?

"That's a fair question," Ford allows. "But we're working with RTD and DRCOG (the Denver Regional Council of Governments) to educate people about how they can continue to use those lanes." Campaigns to inform folks about the change are already bubbling under the surface, and they'll intensify as the U.S. 36 phases open and January 2017 nears.

In the end, Ford believes "some people will say, 'I'll peel off and go into the general-purpose lane,' and some will stay and pay the toll like they're a single-occupancy vehicle. And others will seek out the third option, car pooling, which is why we'll be working extensively with DRCOG to promote that."

Not everyone is happy with the HOV3 approach. In a Boulder Daily Camera article on the subject, Westminster Mayor Nancy McNally says making people who had been able to use the lanes start paying may feel like "double taxation." But Broomfield Mayor Pat Quinn was won over after a rule was put in place to make sure any money above a set amount pledged to Plenary will "stay in the corridor for future improvements," Ford says.

Bumps in the road are to be expected, Ford concedes, but new innovations could help compensate for them. "In Washington, D.C., where they already have HOV3, there are little areas where people stand by the side of the road and get picked up" by drivers who want to use the express lanes. "You may not know that person, but they stop by, and away you go.

"Whether something like that happens in Colorado remains to be seen," she notes. "But there are many very good examples nationally about how this all works."

In the meantime, CDOT hopes that three people will be the charm.

More from our News archive circa January 2012: "I-70 pace cars experiment is working, CDOT says -- just not all the time."

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