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

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.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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