Length: 11 miles, from Federal Boulevard to 88th Street
Cost: $312 million
Estimated completion date: December 2014
Bus rapid transit stations: Westminster Center (Sheridan Boulevard), Westminster (Church Ranch Boulevard), Broomfield (1stBank Center), Broomfield (Flatiron/96th Street)
Length: 6 miles, from 88th Street to Table Mesa park-n-Ride
Cost: $113 million (estimated)
Estimated completion date: December 2015
Bus rapid transit stations: Superior/Louisville (McCaslin Boulevard), Boulder (Table Mesa Drive)
When the stretch of U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder re-opens shiny and new a few years from now, conscientious carpoolers will be able to whiz past the solo driving masses stuck in traffic in a dedicated lane reserved for buses, high occupancy vehicles and those willing to pay for access.
But qualifying for a free ride in the new managed lane won't be as easy as you think.
That's because the Colorado Department of Transportation plans to increase the threshold for a high occupancy vehicle, or HOV, from a minimum of two occupants to three.
It's a concept known as HOV3, and it means that any vehicle carrying two people is treated the same as a single occupancy vehicle -- both will have to pay a toll if they choose to drive in the U.S. 36 express lane.
HOV3 has been implemented in several cities around the country, but doesn't yet exist in Colorado.
Nick Farber, enterprise specialist for CDOT's High-Performance Transportation Enterprise, said HOV3 will become the standard in the state starting in four years. Its debut is slated for the $425 million U.S. 36 Managed Lanes project, as well as the existing express lanes on Interstate 25 north of downtown Denver.
Construction on the revamp of U.S. 36 began a year ago. The highway, between Federal Boulevard and the Table Mesa park-n-Ride in Boulder, is undergoing a major facelift that will bring a managed lane to each direction of travel, bus rapid transit service, a corridor-long bikeway and intelligent real-time signage. The two general-purpose lanes in each direction will remain in place.
The project, which is being done in two phases, is expected to be completed by the beginning of 2016.
"Our traffic projections were showing that by 2017 these managed lanes would be filling up with solo and HOV2 drivers and slowing the buses down," Farber said. "One of the goals of the project is to have reliable travel time for (Regional Transportation District) buses."
In fact, CDOT has entered into an agreement with RTD whereby the transit agency has been guaranteed that its buses will be able to maintain a minimum average speed of 50 mph to 55 mph within the corridor. RTD will be running a fleet of 59 bus rapid transit vehicles -- low-to-the-ground, easy-to-board buses that run on a more frequent rail-like schedule than conventional buses -- in the managed lanes between Denver and Boulder.
CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford said she understands that there will be an adjustment period for people accustomed to using the HOV lane for free with just one other person in their car.
"I recognize that this might be a little challenging for the individual," Ford said. "But setting the bar higher with HOV3 is critical to the reliability of travel in this corridor as well as providing alternative modes of travel."
Feels like 'double taxation'
Westminster Mayor Nancy McNally said her city fought the concept of HOV3 on U.S. 36, preferring to leave the high occupancy vehicle threshold where it is today.
With the amount of money residents in the corridor already have spent through the FasTracks sales tax -- with no commuter rail anywhere in sight -- McNally said requiring additional motorists to pay a toll to ride in the managed lane is effectively a double whammy for those who live in the corridor.
FasTracks is the voter-approved, metrowide rail system that promised a commuter train between Denver and Longmont within the next decade. But plans for Northwest Rail have been thrown into uncertainty as the cost of building the 41-mile line has ballooned far beyond what was originally budgeted by RTD.
"It does feel like double taxation in many ways," McNally said. "It just feels ugly that (the U.S. 36 Managed Lanes project) is the piece of FasTracks we get, and now you're also going to have to pay to drive that lane unless you can find two people to go with you."
McNally, herself a U.S. 36 carpooler for years, said she knows how hard it is to round up a colleague and coordinate schedules for a joint ride to work and back home. Tossing a third person into the mix adds a huge burden to the whole process, she said.
"I don't know how you're going to get three people unless you're a family," she said.
Broomfield Mayor Pat Quinn acknowledged that there are "a lot of trade-offs" going to an HOV3 scenario, but said the overriding need to ensure that U.S. 36 doesn't bog down within a few years is paramount. Demographers predict a 28 percent bump in population and a 53 percent jump in jobs in the corridor by 2035.
"We have to make sure, first and foremost, that the managed lanes are free and clear for buses," he said. "Everybody agreed that the managed lanes have to have a transit bias."
And Quinn pointed out that stakeholders in the corridor insisted that any additional revenues from HOV3 tolls, beyond what it costs to reimburse the concessionaire building and operating the highway, remain in the corridor for future transit improvements.
CDOT's Ford said toll collections on U.S. 36 are expected to range from $1.1 million to $2.5 million in 2015, and by 2035 could reach $16.8 million, though she cautions that the long-term estimate is based on an HOV2 scenario. She said it's likely the total will be higher under an HOV3 system.
CDOT is contracting with Plenary Roads Denver -- a consortium of half a dozen companies with expertise in planning, construction and finance -- to design and build the project. Plenary also will do all maintenance work on the highway until 2063.
Pull down on the tab
Toll collection on U.S. 36 will be similar to what exists on I--25 near downtown Denver. Drivers with transponders attached to their windshields will be scanned and charged every time they use the managed lane, unless they have three or more people in their vehicle.
But HOV3 drivers will have an additional duty that current HOV drivers don't have. They will be required to pull down on a temporary deactivation tab built into their transponder before getting into the managed lane to avoid being charged for traveling in it.
"It's going to be on the user to pull down the tab," said Farber, with the High-Performance Transportation Enterprise.
For those with fewer than three occupants in their car, pulling on the tab to avoid the toll could result in a stiff fine.
Ford said a mix of different law enforcement agencies up and down the U.S. 36 corridor will be looking out for those trying to cheat the system. A warning light will notify officers that an approaching motorist has pulled down the tab on their transponder so they can easily check to see if it is a legitimate HOV3 vehicle or a scofflaw.
Congestion pricing will be in effect in the corridor, meaning toll amounts will rise and fall with traffic volume. Ford said the exact range of toll prices for U.S. 36 has not yet been established.
Nadine Lee, an RTD project manager for U.S. 36, said for those unwilling or unable to track down at least two other people for HOV3 travel, there is an easy alternative with the advent of bus rapid transit in the corridor. Frequent service, electronic ticketing and the peace of mind from knowing that at least one fewer vehicle is polluting the air between Denver and Boulder should make riding the bus cool again, she said.
"If people want to ride the bus to avoid paying tolls, we're happy to provide that service," Lee said.