I was driving east on I-70 through the Colorado mountains on Saturday evening when I had my first experience with CDOT's new tolled "fast lane." I-70 is a mess. With the number of people living in the Denver metro area skyrocketing and with limited ways to get to the cherished resort areas found in Summit county, I-70 more closely resembles a parking lot than an interstate highway these days. Things have become so bad I rarely go to the mountains anymore. In the good old days it was possible to drive to the mountains via I-70 on a summer day with very little traffic, especially if I started early. Now that the ski resorts of Summit county have become year round destinations that is no longer the case.
In a vain attempt to resolve the problem of way too many people using an interstate highway with limited opportunities for expansion, CDOT added a third lane to the east bound lanes in the hope of breaking up a bottleneck that always occurrs at the same location between the junctions of US 40 and US 6. Yesterday provided me with my first opportunity to sample the new express lane. I knew before I got there that the toll charged for using the lane was variable, depending upon CDOT's comprehension of the relative demand for the lane. The higher the demand, the higher the toll. I appreciated at least that slight acknowledgement of free market principles. Unfortunately, that was the only nod in the direction of free market economics evident yesterday.
As the toll land approached I was inundated with a barrage of signs explaining the various rules for who can use the lane, how it can be used and how much it would cost to use it. Being a quick reader and a slower driver I was able to digest all of the information without incident. The extra lane is probably about ten miles long, maybe a bit more. According to the rules, I had to make up my mind about whether to use the lane prior to the start of the lane. That rule struck me as being extraordinarily stupid. How did I know if I would be willing to pay the toll before I got to the extra lane? I couldn't tell how crowded the two regular lanes were, or were going to be, before I was forced to make a decision about using the toll lane. It was all or nothing and with very little time to make up my mind.
The electronic sign proudly proclaimed that today's toll was going to be $4 for the alleged privilege of going faster than the slow-poke losers in the two regular lanes. Not seeing anything other than very heavy traffic in front of me I decided to save the $4 and forgo use of the toll lane, hoping I could make it to US 6 without encountering a traffic jam. After a couple of miles of heavy traffic I suddenly encountered a section of the highway that had ground to a complete halt. I slammed on my brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of me. Not knowing how long this traffic jam was going to last I looked longingly at the toll lane, wishing I could cross the solid yellow line, pay the $4 toll and soon be speeding on my way home. But the regulation was clear....I had to elect to use the toll lane within the first half mile of its existence or I was forbidden from ever entering it again. That open lane was nothing more than a tease as I sat there stuck in traffic, unable to use it legally and monitored by a barrage of cameras sure to catch my felony violation for jumping over the solid yellow line.
Can you think of a dumber rule for a toll lane than the no entry after the first half mile rule? I can't. The whole point of the lane is to relive traffic when traffic needs relief. Forbidding drivers to jump to the toll lane when the traffic jam starts virtually guarantees that the new fast lane will do nothing to alleviate the traffic jam problem. As I sat in the traffic jam, watching almost nobody go by in the fast lane (since the traffic jam had not yet backed up to the start point of the fast lane), I wondered what brainless bureaucrat had concocted the rule that prohibited me from getting home in a timely fashion. I am sure she had some great reason for forcing me to stay in the traffic jam but as I sat there fuming I could not fathom what it could be.