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Cars on Interstate 70 through Idaho Springs on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. A sign shows the eastbound express lane as closed. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Nearly 50,000 motorists broke the law in 2020 when they drove in the eastbound Interstate 70 express toll lane through Clear Creek County while it was closed and supposed to be serving as the emergency shoulder.

Colorado let those I-70 scofflaws off the hook and it has likely been giving thousands more drivers a similar pass since the 13-mile lane from Empire to Idaho Springs opened in 2015. 

But the state is now trying to put its foot down as it opens a westbound express lane, which it fears will become filled with just as many lawbreakers. Drivers who illegally travel in the closed express lanes may face a $250 fine as soon as August under legislation being debated at the state Capitol.

The state legislature is quickly advancing House Bill 1074, a bipartisan measure that would let the Colorado Department of Transportation use the license plate cameras used to collect tolls when the I-70 mountain express lane is open to also ticket motorists driving in the lane when it is closed.

Fines range from $10 to $250, and would also be levied on drivers towing trailers or who are behind the wheel of a tractor trailer. Both types of vehicles are prohibited from traveling in the narrow express lanes. 

Traffic backs up on Interstate 70 near Silvethorne on Jan. 7, 2018. It is a familiar scene on the main highway connecting Denver to the mountains. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert, File)

Andy Karsian, a legislative liaison for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said people using the express lanes when they are closed present a “major safety issue.” And there’s really no other way to enforce the lane closure than by using the license plate cameras. Offenders would be mailed a ticket just as they are when they are caught running a red-light camera in downtown Denver. 

“Law enforcement can’t patrol and provide (a) presence on this stretch because that shoulder is too narrow,” he told lawmakers, referring to the express lane. “We need to have this authority in order to make sure people understand the ramifications and the penalties associated with traveling in it (illegally).”

There are now express toll lanes across Colorado, but unlike the others, the one on I-70 through Clear Creek County cannot be open all of the time. That’s because the mountain express lanes are narrower than a traditional interstate lane. (The westbound express lane opened for testing in July.)

The express lanes are narrower because CDOT opted to use the existing width of the roadway to create toll lanes instead of widening the highway, which would have been more costly and had more environmental impacts. But because the lanes are so narrow, Colorado had to make a deal with federal regulators limiting the numbers and hours each year they can be open

The eastbound express lane can be open a maximum of 100 days a year for no more than 1,168 hours annually. The westbound express lane can be open for no more than 125 days a year and no more than 965 hours annually. CDOT opens the lanes during peak traffic periods, and the toll changes based on demand.

CDOT says the eastbound express lane has been a success at reducing drive times on the busy stretch, but people illegally traveling in it, officials say, poses a big risk of a serious crash.

“If you have a flat tire and you’re in that lane, you’re not expecting somebody to come up on you at 65 or 75 miles an hour,” said state Sen. Dennis Hisey, an El Paso County Republican who is a prime sponsor of the bill. “So it’s a safety concern that people are using it as a traffic lane when it’s not intended to be a traffic lane.”

Hisey and his coprime sponsor on the measure, state Rep. July Amabile, a Boulder Democrat, said that CDOT pushed for the legislation. 

“There’s no mechanism to actually close the lane off,” Amabile said in explaining why the  legislation is necessary. 

Some Republicans voted against House Bill 1074 when it was heard this week in the Colorado House, citing their general opposition to the use of toll lanes in the state.

The measure passed the House by a 43-22 vote Tuesday. It now heads to the Senate and appears to be on a glidepath to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk.

Nonpartisan legislative fiscal analysts believe deploying the cameras to ticket drivers who use the mountain express lanes when they are closed will result in about $50,000 worth of fine revenue each year.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:06 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2022, to remove an inaccurate statistic from nonpartisan Colorado legislative staff. Nearly 50,000 motorists broke the law in 2020 when they drove in the eastbound Interstate 70 express toll lane through Clear Creek County while it was closed and supposed to be serving as the emergency shoulder.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....