New I-70 mountain express lane begins charging tolls this week

The free ride is over in the Interstate 70 westbound mountain express lane. Starting this week, driving in the peak-period shoulder lane will cost you — up to $9 if you have an ExpressToll transponder.

The 12-mile westbound express lane, in testing for months, mirrors an older one on the eastbound side of I-70. That one opened in late 2015 in the heavily congested corridor between the U.S. 40 exit at Empire Junction and the Veterans Memorial Tunnels, east of Idaho Springs.

Tolling on the westbound lane was set to begin at 7 a.m. Thursday, a CDOT spokeswoman said, in a prelude of its usual weekend operating schedule.

Both express lanes are the result of an agreement between the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The FHWA waived certain interstate highway standards to allow CDOT to squeeze them into the left shoulders, reducing expansion costs; the westbound project cost about $70 million.

But there’s a trade-off: the express lanes are extra narrow, and the FHWA limits the number of hours and days CDOT can open them each year. They’re typically open Fridays through Sundays during ski season and the summer travel season, along with holidays.

That cap on days is why the eastbound express lane was closed this week on Tuesday, the day after Independence Day, despite continuing heavy return traffic to the Front Range from the holiday weekend that clogged the two regular lanes through the area.

A news release from CDOT says initial toll prices in the westbound lane for ExpressToll account holders will be $9 on Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, and the charge will be $8 on Sundays.

Rates will be higher for all other users, with tolls charged by scanning each vehicle’s license plate.

The I-70 mountain express lanes, unlike some toll lanes in metro Denver, don’t waive tolls for carpooling or motorcycles. And because the lanes are narrow, CDOT doesn’t allow trucks, trailers and other large vehicles in them if they have more than two axles or exceed 25 feet in length.

Later this year, CDOT’s enterprise arm will begin cracking down on drivers who enter the express lanes when they’re closed. A law passed by the state legislature will allow the use of the tolling system to detect violators and issue fines of up to $250, though the exact amount had not been decided when the bill was signed into law.

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