Should Romer's Highway Plan Get Traction?

March 2008
State Senator Chris Romer on Tuesday introduced the first draft of his controversial Wiki-law proposition to fix the mess that is I-70 weekend ski traffic. The Post and Rocky gave the story varying degrees of coverage, but with all the outrage over tolls, neither picked up on this point: the most jaw-droppingly unrealistic part of the bill may not be converting a publicly financed highway to toll status, but the notion – dry, wonkish, and vague – of using reversible lanes during peak hours. The provision, as taken from the text of the draft law he introduced on Tuesday:
"(II) Temporarily reversing existing lanes and lowering the speed in the portion of the highway with the reversible lane for safety purposes;"
It makes it sound so simple – how could it NOT work? Reversible lanes, also called counterflow, are widely used worldwide. They're an elegant solution that can expand road capacity when traffic in one direction is jammed and light in the other. They're particularly effective on bridges and in cities, often over short distances. But when used on a highway, they look like express toll lanes on I-25 through Denver – separate lanes physically walled off from both flows of traffic, a so-called third carriageway. Nowhere in the world is there a long-distance segment of highway that uses reversible lanes without that arrangement. That idea, of course, is far more ambitious than anything Romer has seriously proposed for I-70's mountain corridor. But it's worth asking, then, how his plan would work. The section Romer is targeting for high-occupancy tolling and reversible lanes runs roughly from Floyd Hill to the Eisenhower Tunnel. And since I-70 is, like all interstates, a divided highway, reversing a lane would involve shunting traffic to the opposite side of the center median, or the K-rails, those concrete dividers that separate east- and west-bound cars. That's fine for anyone headed to Keystone, Vail or other Summit/Eagle resorts. They get shuffled back to the normal, west-bound side before their exits. But skiers headed to Winter Park – Romer's fave area – and Sol Vista have to exit at US 40, and Loveland aficionados have to exit prior to the tunnel, at US 6 (also a preferred route for some A-Basin skiers). How do they get off the road when they're driving on the wrong side of it? Nothing in the draft bill offers a clue, although such a plan would almost obviously need to include some pretty significant road upgrades – at minimum, median crossings where traffic could flow back to the right side of the highway (which could bottleneck traffic behind, which sorta limits the plan's effectiveness) and at maximum, dedicated off-ramps (expensive). And if the bill's vague on how this would work, it says absolutely nothing about how to pay for it. Romer's tolling provision is intended first to provide funds for the tolling infrastructure (a nice Moebius loop there, huh?) and then, as second and third priorities, to construct parking lots for the semi trucks to wait out the peak travel times and to fund busing services meant to ferry skiers up and down the corridor. Not a word about the cash needed to actually build the setup to funnel traffic from one side of the road to the other. More importantly, what about the costs of keeping people safe as they're driving in a flex lane on the wrong side of the K-rails that normally keep head-on collisions from occurring, particularly in winter weather? In San Francisco, a move is underway to replace the flexible plastic lane markers on the Golden Gate Bridge with a sturdier, moveable barrier system. Since 1971, 36 people, or just under one a year, have died in vehicle collisions on the bridge, many of them head-on. By contrast, in 2006 alone, four people died on I-70 in Clear Creek County, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Another four died on I-70 in Jefferson County after it leaves the metro area – a total of eight fatalities in one year in the same zone where Romer is proposing reversible lanes. But if the Golden Gate plan is any indication, it will take a fortune just to put effective lane dividers in place. A 2007 study of the project – which would replace the current plastic lane markers with a 12-inch wide, 32-inch high moveable steel and concrete barrier system that would eliminate almost all head-on collisions – estimated the cost at $25 million – for the bridge's 1.7-mile length. From Floyd Hill to the tunnel, however, is about 30 miles – meaning the same kind of barrier would cost well over $400 million. Using a cheaper solution might mean more, and more severe, accidents. At this point, answers on how this will all work – and how we'll pay for it – are nonexistent. From TABOR to Jared Polis' ethical reform law, Coloradans have suffered mightily from the unintended consequences of well-intentioned ideas that became badly worded legislation. Romer, for all the ski-pole raps on the head he's taken for the audacity of proposing tolls on a public highway, should be commended for actually trying to get people to think constructively about the problem. But as long as we're thinking about it, let's try to come up with solutions we can actually use.