DENVER - The number of occupants for a free ride in a High Occupancy Vehicle lane will increase to three once construction is complete on the new HOV lanes on U.S. 36.
Currently, the HOV lane on eastbound U.S. 36 from Sheridan Boulevard to Pecos Street is restricted to vehicles with two or more occupants. From Pecos Street onto Interstate 25, drivers who are alone can choose to pay a toll.
Construction is already underway for one HOV lane in each direction on U.S. 36 from Denver to Boulder.
"A critical element of this project is that this is also going to be an express bus lane for RTD," said Ben Stein, Colorado Department of Transportation Chief Financial Officer. If cars with only two occupants were allowed to the new HOV lanes "on an unlimited basis, it eliminates our ability to control the lane," he added.
Once the new HOV lanes are opened, they will only be free for RTD buses and vehicles with three or more occupants. The main goal of the lane is to keep RTD buses traveling at least 50 mph. Any other driver can pay a toll to use the lanes.
The price of the toll is not yet set, but it won't be any less than the cost of taking an RTD bus the same distance. If the buses are moving slower than 50 mph, the toll will increase to try to ease congestion.
"Essentially to discourage a lot of driver's from getting into that lane?" asked 7NEWS reporter Marshall Zelinger.
"Not a lot of drivers; too many drivers. It's a distinction," said Stein. "If you allow unlimited numbers of cars at any time of day into that lane, it would prevent us from assuring that the buses have their priority of service."
"One minute, it could be one price, and if there's a driver one minute behind me, it could be another price?" asked Zelinger.
"That's correct," said Stein.
"I carpool into downtown with two people in the car and I won't be able to do that in a few years," said State Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville.
Jones utilizes the HOV lane to get to the Capitol. He's concerned about the new standard for the HOV lane, but his bigger concern is that the project is not being completed by the state.
The project is a public-private partnership between a few organizations including CDOT, RTD and a business group called Plenary Roads.
CDOT could not tell 7NEWS how much Plenary Roads is investing in the project because the contract has not yet been signed.
To make its money back, Plenary Roads will collect the tolls and cover the maintenance of U.S. 36 until 2063. That maintenance includes plowing, pothole repair and other roadwork.
"I just like to have control -- from a legislative body -- being able to say, '(Colorado) Department of Transportation, do X, Y and Z,'" said Jones. "We all need to step up and pay our fair share and just do things as whole, and not have these public-private partnerships, so the state maintains control of these projects."
7NEWS found out Plenary Roads could get fined for not maintaining the road properly. They can also be fined if the HOV lanes become too congested.
"If (the buses) are on an average basis -- on a recurring basis -- not being able to meet their performance times, there will be penalties imposed," said Stein. "(Plenary Roads wants) to get as many people to pay as they can within the parameters of the minimum fare and not causing the buses to slow down."
Once construction is complete, there will be full-sized shoulders to clear accidents from lanes of traffic.
"Those two (free) lanes will fundamentally be better lanes and be able to move more capacity than they can today," said Stein. "The RTD buses will get out of those lanes and into the managed lane. That's a significant change in terms of the volume. And for every car that goes into the managed lane, that's one less car in the general purpose lane."
Once Plenary Roads makes its money back, additional revenue is split between the private group and CDOT. The money CDOT collects has to be spent in the U.S. 36 corridor.