Lexus lanes only would widen the gap between haves, have-nots in Colorado

Author: Shaun Egan - May 3, 2018 - Updated: May 3, 2018

Shaun Egan

In 2012 the Colorado Transportation Commission passed Policy Directive 1603, which directed the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to “strongly consider managed lanes during the planning process for new capacity projects (any expansion and/or operational improvements) on state highways that are or will be congested.” In addition, the directive stated that CDOT must justify “the decision to not include managed lanes.”

While managed lanes may provide free access for transit and 3+ carpools, they really are a euphemism for toll lanes. And in no small part due to the high cost to use these toll lanes, the phrase “Lexus Lanes” has become the new moniker.

While mitigating traffic congestion on our highways is desperately needed, the CDOT policy places the ”thumb on the scale”  and tilts the decision to placing “managed lanes” before any other alternative for congestion relief.  This “pay-to-play” approach favors only those who can afford this form of double taxation.

CDOT currently has Lexus Lanes on I-25 North of Denver and US 36.  They are now seeking to extend, as the only capacity improvements, Lexus Lanes further north on I-25 to Fort Collins and for the I-25 South Gap between Colorado Springs and Denver.  CDOT’s policy to strongly consider managed lanes helped to play into the decision that these corridors where only limited transit exists today would be managed lanes where most travelers would pay a toll if they wish to use the new lane.

The advent of these managed or “Lexus” lanes would appear to further widen the gap in our society between the haves and have-nots.  These Lexus Lanes, which may cost users several thousand dollars annually, afford those with greater financial means a substantial advantage in time savings as they travel in lanes with relatively few vehicles, while others with less means are mired in the congested general-purpose lanes.  While not intended, CDOT’s policy on managed lanes gives the impression that the state views higher income individuals’ time as being more valuable than those with less means.

If you had any doubt whether these are Lexus Lanes, one only needs to look at data related to users of the I-25 North Express lanes.   Those with incomes over $100,000 represent about 25% of the population but make up almost 50% of the users of the lanes.  In contrast, over 40% of the population has a household income of less than $50,000 and represent less than 10% of the users.

While some may indicate that an option exists for lower-income individuals to use transit or travel in carpools of 3+ for free in these lanes, this is not as simple as it may seem.  First, many lower-paying positions in the region are at businesses that are poorly served by transit, if at all.   In addition, the likelihood of creating a carpool of three or more people traveling to the same location and time, other than downtown Denver, is slim.   Even if lower income individuals have a carpool of three or more people, they could not operate freely in the lane unless they first established an Express Toll account and obtained a transponder.

That brings us to the next challenge for less fortunate individuals and others in using these lanes.  There are two means to access CDOT’s Express Lanes.  The first is by enrolling in the ExpressToll System and obtaining a transponder.  The second is having a toll assessed based on your license plate.  ExpressToll customers receive a savings of almost 67 percent over the license plate rate.  To participate in the ExpressToll program an individual must first create an account using a credit card, then they must pay $15 for a transponder, and finally prepay $35 for tolls.

A recent Bankrate survey found that 39% of households making less than $40,000 annually have no credit card, and 67% of millennials don’t have credit cards.  The lack of a credit card effectively bars them from obtaining the lower cost ExpressToll rate, limiting them only to the license plate rate that is substantially higher.  In addition many of these households do not have bank or checking accounts to cover the required deposit.  Thus, those with modest incomes or millennials are severely limited from using these lanes, or they pay a significantly higher price to do so.

This may even seem reasonable, if these Lexus Lanes were paid solely with private funds, but that is not the case.  Taxpayer funds will help to build these lanes.  Low and middle-income people will share in paying the cost for a luxury that many may rarely, if ever, be able to use.

Transportation is a basic social need which should not create winners and losers in our society.  The Transportation Commission should rethink its policy on managed lanes and allow for a level playing field in weighing all options for capacity.  There also needs to be a reconsideration of the policies for existing managed lanes on US 25 and US 36 toward opening them more to the public while not compromising operations.  This could be done by moving back to 2+ carpools for free access, reducing barriers and costs for lower income people to use them, and opening the lanes to all parties in off-peak periods when congestion does not exist.

Shaun Egan

Shaun Egan

Shaun Egan is the president and CEO of Iron Woman Construction and Environmental Services. He also serves as the chairman of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which represents over 600 companies involved in trucking in Colorado.