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A Toll for the Slopes 17 October 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Skiing, Travel.
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I just love when skiing intersects with policy, particularly since most of the time, nobody wants to hear wonkishness about Pigovian taxes and internalizing externalities. But when you’re stuck in a car on a Saturday morning waiting, praying for ski traffic to start moving, it’s high time to pull out the ole policy gun and fire off a round or two. At least you have a captive, and interested, audience. Pretty much everyone who skis in Colorado hopes for a solution to the traffic nightmare that is a weekend morning or evening. For those of you not familiar with Colorado’s unique predicament, here’s a primer from Slateon that stretch of highway between Denver and Vail:

The I-70 mountain corridor is a rather unusual piece of highway. As Ken Wissel, a transportation engineer with the Denver firm Stantec…describes it, I-70 has two of the highest peaks in the entire Interstate Highway system within 25 miles of each other. There are four major ascents, a two-mile-long tunnel that dips under the Continental Divide, a terrifying descent that features one of the country’s most-used emergency truck ramps, and a number of merge zones where traffic must jockey as the highway goes from three to two lanes before entering the tunnels. To complicate matters there’s snow, a lot of snow (“We had 600 inches last year,” Wissel says); and traffic, a lot of traffic.  “We end up with some real long queues,” Wissel says. Backups as long as 30 miles have been reported.

A good summary, but the problem isn’t all about the geography; it involves people too. The ski day begins and ends at particular times, meaning that traffic all arrives from Denver at around the same hour and departs on a similarly scheduled basis: roughly 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. All those cars at once, intermingled with the inexperienced throngs of Midwestern vacationers and their white-knuckle driving creates a mess of volume and accident-related slowdowns or stops. Dealing with traffic is a necessary part of skiing in Colorado. A rite of passage almost.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Slate article above describes the problem to tell a larger story about CDOT’s attempts to “harmonize” traffic at certain speeds. Once volume hits a certain point, a cop pulls onto the highway, lights flashing, and leads the mass of cars at 55 mph. Think pace car in an Indy or NASCAR race. That keeps drivers from engaging the the sort of speed up/slow down behavior that results accidents that cause even more delays. Two tests so far this year seem to indicate that it will be an effective strategy, but it only addresses a symptom, not the underlying problem of volume.

The real issue of course is volume: too many cars on a road only designed to handle so much. And look, before you say it, I know that semi trucks are a curse too, but they only become relevant once traffic reaches a certain point anyway. If there aren’t already 10 bajillion cars on the road, whatever dumb behavior you attribute to 18-wheelers doesn’t matter. At any rate, when the problem is volume, you can have only two solutions: increase capacity or decrease the number of cars.

No one’s going to widen I-70 anytime soon, nor are they going to build that monorail, so you can nix solution one right out of the gates. So the second option is the only realistic one, and since you can’t arbitrarily ban, say, cars with license plates ending in odd numbers from heading up to the mountains, the leaves the sensible solution of making the whole thing a toll road—at least part of the time. Congestion pricing is nothing new—London does it—but it will definitely piss people off. It will also keep them off the road because traveling around peak times will get annoyingly expensive.

Under the system, traveling at peak hours would incur higher tolls, while off peak travel could be essentially free, encouraging drivers to travel at off times or to pile more people into their cars to diffuse the cost of the toll. In turn the money could go toward expanded capacity. Or a monorail. I mean, why not? I’m not as interested in the particulars as I am in forcing drivers to confront the real costs they’re incurring when they all show up at the same hour because the interstate is free, creating slowdowns that waste everyone’s time. Time really is money, and we shouldn’t be wasting either when it comes to skiing. If it takes toll roads to get us to and from the slopes faster, then toll roads we shall have.

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