04/12/2012 06:11 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

Driving Fast and Slow on I-70

As my stepson and I were traveling from Denver to Copper Mountain last week for our final ski day of the season, we completed the trip in just under 90 minutes. Lousy snow and good weather conspired to make our journey swift and relatively painless, much like most trips were when I-70 was constructed more than 40 years ago. Since a second tunnel bore enabled four traffic lanes beneath the Continental Divide there have been few changes to the highway. By contrast, Colorado's population has more than doubled, while the size and number of central mountain resorts has quadrupled, as has the supporting inventory of tourist rooms. Inexorably, each year an additional 3 to 6% growth in trips crowds onto the highway. We are all familiar with the consequences.

During the past fifteen years, five separate studies, at a taxpayer cost exceeding $50 million dollars, have evaluated alternative strategies for reducing I-70 traffic congestion. A Major Investment Study (MIS), the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority (CIFGA) [PDF], the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) [PDF], the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority (RMRA) and the I-70 Collaborative Effort (CE) each independently reached the same conclusion -- that the preferred solution, in fact, the only solution which promises to address the capacity problem would require the construction of an Advanced Guideway System (AGS) that provides rapid transit service to recreational travelers. Yet, much of Colorado remains unconvinced.

Why is this? There are ample jokes about lawyers and economists, and how many it takes to reach a conclusion. But engineers have historically fared better in terms of public confidence. I would suggest that transportation provides a unique public policy challenge. Virtually everyone drives, which imparts nearly everyone with some familiarity, even a sense of expertise, regarding traffic congestion and how to manage it. I've been enjoying psychologist Daniel Kahneman's recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, which examines how we process information. Most of the time we rely on pattern recognition loops which are imprinted at a nearly pre-conscious level to process the sensory stimuli received from the world around us. This is 'thinking fast,' the phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell explored in his bestseller, Blink. It serves us well, and proves right about 97% of the time. It's the only way we can successfully drive a car, for example. Trying to mentally anticipate and steer a vehicle would prove a catastrophe. Kahneman calls this System 1 thinking. When it is wrong, and once we recognize an error, we have to start 'thinking slow', and shift to System 2 thinking. That's the hard work of rational thought.

It's far easier to rely on our intuition. Gridlock means there simply aren't enough lanes, right? If we widen the highway our problems would disappear, or would they? Or, why fool with a high tech train when we already know how to widen the highway? That sounds simple, but is actually simple minded. Traffic spikes along I-70 often reach 500-600% of its current, four-lane capacity. Two more lanes would only expand the highway's carrying capacity by 50%, and that, only when weather conditions permit. A six-lane highway will only produce a larger, more expensive parking lot.

The I-70 PEIS determined that an AGS transit system could rapidly accommodate these spikes, leaving the current four-lane highway less congested in twenty years than would a widened, six-lane highway. Counter-intuitive, to be sure, but if you are creeping slowly on a Sunday afternoon, you can take the time to think slowly, as well. What if half, or more, of corridor travelers were zipping along a parallel guideway at 90 or a hundred miles per hour? Could I arrive home sooner, and/or should I be riding the AGS? Other critics have suggested a so-called HOT (high occupancy toll) lane that would direct market discipline to the highway. Unfortunately, average vehicle occupancy during peak periods currently rings in at 3.5 passengers. When everyone can enter the HOV lane, it becomes just another lane.

In an effort to look like they are attempting to do something to relieve congestion, CDOT has scraped together several tens of millions of dollars to widen the eastbound bore at the twin tunnels just east of Idaho Springs. Another lane will be added from there to the base of Floyd Hill. Will travel times between this new tunnel and Floyd Hill improve? Yes, marginally. But think of a tube of toothpaste. If you move the tube, you still can't squeeze the paste out any faster. The congestion will simply start a few miles further west as travelers return to the Front Range on the weekend. An entire industry exists to build highways, and it will continue beating the drum for a wider highway, dressed up as express lanes, or exclusive busways. Yet, asphalt solutions remain vulnerable to all the risks of weather and accident delays that currently close the roadway. Nonetheless, it will be claimed this offers a cheaper choice for taxpayers.

Once again, all those engineering studies show this to be untrue. Widening I-70 is an astronomically expensive proposition. It requires new tunnels, new cuts on canyon walls to accommodate additional lanes and the relocation of millions of tons of fill. It is likely to cost considerably more than an AGS. And the construction itself will disrupt highway traffic for a decade or more, creating even further congestion. Worse yet, there is very little public money available for either alternative. Certainly, there isn't enough money to attempt both. If a public/private partnership is to be contemplated, we need to think very carefully about which we should undertake first?

Despite the risks inherent to building any first-of-a-kind system, the necessary technology is available and the AGS does not require a leap of faith. Whatever shortage of money may exist, the larger shortage is one of leadership and political courage. We are most likely to see it emerge from the corridor communities themselves as mayors and county commissioners demand that Colorado construct transit first!