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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)

Motorists who drive in the Interstate 70 mountain express toll lanes in Clear Creek County when they are closed and supposed to be serving as the emergency shoulder will face a $250 fine starting in August. 

Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday signed House Bill 1074 into law letting the Colorado Department of Transportation use the license plate cameras used to collect tolls when the I-70 mountain express lanes are open to also ticket motorists driving in the lane when it is closed.

There are now express toll lanes across Colorado, but unlike the others, the ones 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 13-mile lane from Empire to Idaho Springs opened in 2015 and a westbound express toll lane opened along the same stretch last year.

In 2020, nearly 50,000 motorists drove in the eastbound I-70 express toll lane when it was closed, according to state data.

The cameras will also be used to ticket drivers in the toll lanes 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.  

Offenders will be mailed a ticket just as they are when they are caught running a red-light camera in downtown Denver.

Authorities have been unable to enforce the toll lanes’ closure because the lanes are too narrow to allow an officer to wait and catch scofflaws.

The express lanes are narrower because CDOT opted to use the existing width of the roadway to create toll lanes instead of widening the interstate, which would have been more costly and had more environmental impacts. 

Because the lanes are so narrow, Colorado had to make a deal with federal regulators limiting the amount of time they can be open each year. 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.

House Bill 1074 was sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Judy Amabile, of Boulder, and Republican state Sen. Dennis Hisey, of El Paso County.

The Colorado Sun —

Desk: 720-432-2229

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.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul