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Rachel Riley, The GazetteRachel Riley, The GazetteApril 28, 20187min651

An environmental assessment released Friday shed light on what the high-priority infrastructure project will look like once it’s finished. The roughly 100-page document, prepared by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, details the widening of the “Gap” between Monument and Castle Rock.

CDOT has proposed adding a pair of toll lanes, or so-called “Express Lanes,” to widen the 17-mile stretch from two to three lanes in each direction. Residents and public officials have protested the plan, saying that El Paso and Douglas County governments have already put taxpayer dollars toward the project, so a toll would amount to double taxation.

Here are a few questions that the assessment helps answer:

How much would the Express Lanes cost?

The tolls haven’t yet been set. The Board of Directors for CDOT’s High-Performance Transportation Enterprise program will determine the tolls several months before construction is completed.

The rates would vary, increasing during periods of heavier traffic, the assessment states. According to the enterprise program’s 2017 annual report, toll rates on U.S. 36 between Denver and Boulder and north I-25 Express Lanes ranged from $0.35 to $5.15 depending on the traffic on the road and the time of day.

How would the Express Lanes work?

Each Express Lane would be 12 feet wide with a four-foot painted buffer to separate it from the other two nontoll lanes, the assessment states. To use Express lanes, drivers need to buy a pass, according to CDOT’s website. Those who use the Express Lane without a pass are billed and charged an additional fee via their license plate number; a bill is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle.

Buses and vehicles with three or more people could use the Express Lanes for free if the driver purchases a “transponder” device, which attaches to the inside of a windshield so it can be read electronically.

Why does CDOT think Express Lanes are the best option for the widening?

CDOT has determined that Express Lanes are the most reliable option for reducing traffic in the Gap – immediately and in the long-term. CDOT predicts that adding a third general purpose lane in each direction would not reduce congestion. But, “the Express Lane alternative offers the choice for predictability and reliability by managing volumes and speeds,” the assessment states.

More than 80 miles of Express Lanes already exist in the state on I-25 north of Denver, U.S. 36 from Denver to Boulder, Interstate 70 from Empire Junction to Idaho Springs and C-470. The toll lanes have proved successful in reducing traffic on all lanes of a highway. For example, travel times in the general purpose lanes on I-70 improved by 38 percent in the first year after an Express Lane was added to the highway, according to the assessment.

Is CDOT going to change its mind about adding toll lanes to the Gap?

It’s unlikely. “There was a very methodical process that was followed to reach the solution that best meets the purpose and need,” said Tamara Rollison, a CDOT spokeswoman.

CDOT Executive Director Michael Lewis said at a Thursday media briefing about the assessment that residents’ opposition has not made CDOT change its preference, but has influenced toll pricing, hours and other operational details.

What would the construction schedule look like?

Construction could begin later this summer if all the funding is secured, including a highly-competitive $65 million federal grant that is set to be decided in June.

The widening will be constructed in three phases. Construction will begin on the north part of the stretch, from Castle Rock to Sky View Lane from summer 2018 to fall 2019. The south end of the Gap, from Monument to East Greenland Road, would be under construction from winter 2019 to fall 2020. The middle segment would be under construction from spring 2019 to summer 2021.

Traffic would be shifted to different lanes of the interstate throughout the project to allow for construction.

What happens next?

A public comment period on the assessment is now open and will end on May 29. Written comments can be submitted through the project website (i25gap.codot.gov) or to the project email (i25gap@cdot.us).

Citizens may also comment at two public hearings. One is from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on May 14 at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, 500 Fairgrounds Road, in Castle Rock. Another is set for 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on May 16 at Liberty High School, 8720 Scarborough Drive, in Colorado Springs.

According to the environmental assessment, CDOT and the Federal Highway Administration will “review and consider all comments” and determine whether to make any changes to the proposal.

The EA process will be complete with a “decision document” that’s expected in June 2018.

What happens if the project isn’t awarded the INFRA grant?

If the federal grant isn’t awarded, state and local officials will have to cover the $65 million funding shortfall. The state’s Transportation Commission is responsible for allocating money to the project, Rollison said.

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller, who’s pushed for the widening of the highway, acknowledged the project’s chance of winning the grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program is “a bit of a long shot.”

If the project doesn’t win the grant, local governments on the stretch might be able to contribute to help make ends meet, Waller said. State dollars might be another source, he said. In March, Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a one-time allocation of $500 million to go toward transportation projects across the state.

“We’re going to find the money elsewhere. It’s going to happen,” Waller said. “It’s a very serious public safety issue, and it needs to get built. And it needs to happen sooner than later.”