Hudson: Colorado plays host to those tolling for the future

Author: Miller Hudson - September 27, 2016 - Updated: September 26, 2016

Miller Hudson

Almost any weekday this summer, you could spot Denver conventioneers on 16th Street Mall shuttles by the colorful lanyards adorning their necks. It’s usually easy to discern whether these are visiting dentists, geologists, accountants or lawyers after a quick glance at their badges. But the recent 84th Annual Meeting of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) was a head-scratcher. Seriously, who knew there was an International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association?

Hosted in Denver by our very own E-470 Authority, the operators of tolled roads, bridges, HOV/HOT lanes and their vendors from across the country — and world — assembled to rub elbows and celebrate what they view as a promising business opportunity. With politicians afraid to raise taxes and, in Colorado, voters reluctant to approve them, tolling has a bright future.

You can measure the prosperity of an association by the dollars its vendors are willing to throw at delegate entertainment — free drinks, free food, evening buffets and Latin bands at LoDo bars. By that standard, it appears there must be substantial dollars sloshing around the tolling industry.

The world was represented, with European, Japanese and Taiwanese companies rolling out the red carpet alongside their American competitors.

Next year their summit is scheduled for Rome, validating the international nature of the organization. Wow!

Of course, Colorado is something of a small fry in the tolling business alongside states like Florida and Pennsylvania that abandoned taxes in favor of public private partnerships for highway expansion years ago. Absent an infusion of spinal starch in our own state’s legislative chambers, it seems inevitable that Colorado will accommodate the 12,000 newcomers and their cars arriving each month with tolled highway capacity.

The kickoff panel featured Colorado’s finest: Tim Stewart, executive director of the E-470 Authority, Shailen Bhatt, executive director of CDOT, Kelly Brough, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Henry Stopplecamp, assistant general manager of Capital Programs at RTD. The panel’s focus was on innovation and collaboration. Stopplecamp boasted about RTD’s successful FasTracks program and the 122 miles of rail it will soon operate, while Bhatt acknowledged that despite $2 billion thrown into the T-REX project, congestion along I-25 south is returning to its prewidening levels just a dozen years after completion. Brough bragged about the Chamber’s Mobility Choice Blueprint panel, which will examine technology and behavioral change as potential avenues for improving highway capacity.

Implicit in these presentations was a fingers-crossed hope that automatic vehicles and connected platooning, relying on radar recognition between vehicles, can miraculously expand capacity. This hope is premised on the notion that spacing can be reduced to 30-foot headways, rather than the hundred maintained by drivers today, thereby tripling throughput at turnpike speeds.

The following day’s glimpse at technological “progress” threw some cold water on this fantasy. Not only is there a substantial expense in outfitting dedicated lanes with the electronics required to convoy connected vehicles, but there is currently no business model for recovering these costs. Marty Stone, American manager for the French firm EGIS, confirmed the academic consensus that widespread deployment is unlikely for another 25 years.

The second death in an automated TESLA vehicle last week, this time in China, indicates that this technology remains in its infancy. The hundred Uber customers in Pittsburgh who have agreed to accept rides in driverless vehicles are a brave bunch. One estimate of what would happen if a queue of connected vehicles were stopped at 70 miles per hour by a jackknifing trailer, by way of example, is a 250 vehicle pileup and 65 deaths before connected cars could be stopped. Count me out.

It seems more likely that Colorado toll facilities will soon mimic Florida’s system where the state picks tourists’ pockets of five dollars in Orlando, before the airport’s control tower even leaves their rental car’s rear view mirror. Locals know how to dodge these thefts; um … I meant tolls.

Or, Colorado voters could pony up and restructure transportation taxes. (Oops, I must have been slipped up by too many edibles.)

TRAVEL TIP:  I’ve heard but cannot confirm that if you have a couple of bicycles hanging on the rack behind your car, photo tolls may not read your license plate.

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.