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Free HOV device legislation hits speed bump

Posted: 12:00 AM, Apr 08, 2016
Updated: 2016-04-08 02:00:40-04

The attempt to make HOV driving free again could fail at the Capitol because the bill now does too much.

In January, Denver7 first told you about the Senate bill that would get rid of the new HOV/Toll transponders required by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

To use the I-25 and U.S. 36 express lanes for free as an HOV user, you currently have to pay for a $15 transponder and a $20 credit on a toll account, on the off chance you ever use the lane as a toll lane.

"The fact that carpoolers have to pay a fee to use the carpool lane is irresponsible," said State Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont. "The environmentally responsible thing shouldn't be the more costly thing."

Singer is the House sponsor for the bill that has morphed since State Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, introduced it in the Senate.

"The way the bill is written right now, it's probably on a crash course for failure," said Singer.

At one point, CDOT was ready to compromise on the bill and agree to reimburse HOV drivers who had already paid for the transponder, and then give free transponders to drivers who said they would be HOV-only. However, all drivers would still be required to provide a credit card number because if they ever switched the device to "Toll," they would be charged $15 for the device and a $20 credit would be added to their account.

CDOT told Denver7 that 73,000 drivers have a switchable transponder for use on all express lanes in the state. Of those, 15,000 have only used them as HOV on I-25 and U.S. 36. About 8,500 use them as both HOV and a toll.

CDOT estimates it would cost $1.5 million this year to reimburse drivers and then $1 million each year to provide free transponders.

The bill now also calls for a delay in the change from HOV 2+ to HOV 3+. In January, CDOT is changing the HOV requirement from two or more people in the vehicle to three or more.

When CDOT signed its agreement with Plenary Roads Denver to build and manage U.S. 36, it included a section on changing from HOV 2+ to HOV 3+.

"Once the state, authorized representatives of the state, signed the contract, I think we should honor it," said Gov. John Hickenlooper. "I'm going to guess it would be, not just a few hundred thousand dollars, it would be millions, probably tens of millions of dollars, that the state would have to forego, would have to pay back because they invested in the construction."

"They can still make plenty of profits while not doing it not on the backs of carpoolers," said Singer. "My hope is that for the next couple of years, that we can keep the road as an HOV 2."

CDOT would still be willing to offer the free transponders, but delaying the HOV 2+ likely is a non-starter. Sources told Denver7 that it's unlikely the bill even makes it to the Governor's desk as it is now, but if it did he did not sound likely to sign the legislation into law.

"Once the state enters into a contract with someone and then the state comes and changes the law once the contract's in place, it's not just a question of 'Oops,' it's a question of how does the state make sure that they're going to stand behind that contract?" said Hickenlooper.

"The Governor is in a different spot than where my constituents are, and my job is to represent my constituents and not the Governor," said Singer.

The bill will be debated in its first House committee hearing on April 21.