July 25, 1998

COLORADO E-470 – a developmental pike in cow paddocks

Originally published in issue 29 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Jul 1998.


Subjects:developmental pike

Facilities:E-470 Denver-Boulder Turnpike

Agencies:E-470 Public Highway Authority PHA

Locations:Denver CO Colorado Boulder

Sources:Stephen Hogan


E-470 – a developmental pike in cow paddocks

Last year the E-470 Public Highway Authority (PHA) in Denver CO hosted the annual meeting of IBTTA, the tollsters trade association. And attendees toured the works of E-470, an ambitious fringe area toll road due to form a half beltway around the eastern part of the Denver metro area (pop 2.5m) . The visiting toll people were polite but skeptical.

“Where is the traffic coming from?” they asked looking out from the bus at mile after mile of open plain occupied by the occasional nonchalent cow, with only scattered signs of any human development way off in the distance. “They want to build a toll road here, unbelievable, unbelievable,” some muttered. I asked former IBTTA president and then head of the Texas Turnpike Auth, Jim Griffin what he thought afterwards and he responded: “In Texas we don’t have the luxury of building our toll roads 20 years ahead of the traffic.”

Of course these are gut reactions of inexpert visitors, people who haven’t worked the numbers of the forecast growth, looked at development patterns, travel time savings etc. And they are the reactions, too, of people used to viewing viable toll roads as relievers of congestion, in the busy populous east and west coasts of the country.

E-470 is a development road, being built ahead of traffic.

Exec-dir Stephen Hogan readily concedes this and emphasizes that the dozen counties and cities that are backing the E-470 PHA recognize it as a longterm project. It has dedicated revenues from county and city vehicle registration fees and developer impact fees as well as tolls, precisely to carry it through its early years. The road is being built economically with the simplest interchanges to start with and in one case signals. It is 2x3.65m (12’) lanes of asphalt with 3m outer shoulder (10’) and 1.2m (4’) inside shoulder on either side of a 12.8m (42’) central grassed median. Bridges use standardized precast concrete I-beams.

But still it’s a lot of road and a large lump of money. When presently building and planned sections are complete by early 2002 it will be 74km (46mi) of 2x2-lane pike with some 18 to 20 interchanges, another 20 bridges, 5 mainline toll plazas and a bunch of ramp plazas — about $800m total outlay.

The Authority was formed back in 1985, and the next year raised an enormous $722m, the largest bond issue in Colorado (CO) history. It was given state sanction in its present form in ‘87 and by mid-91 had opened its first segment of road. This is a short (8km) eastward extension of an existing untolled freeway CO-470 which comes south off I-70 at Lakewood on the western fringe of the Denver area following the line of the foothills of the Rockies southward, then heads east along the approx southern fringe of the metro area to I-25, forming a one-quarter beltway in the southwestern quadrant of the metro area. E-470 is to complete the southeastern and northeastern quadrants and its strategic centerpiece is that it goes right by the front door of the beautiful tepee motif Denver International Airport.

For four years after the first section of E-470 was opened (7/15/91), further work was delayed when Vollmer and other consultants said that the original eastern alignment was unfinanceable. It was too far from the developed area and would attract insufficient traffic. They recommended the road be moved west — closer in — which also reduced the length and cost of the road. The Authority abandoned the far easterly alignment moving it a mile and a bit but only at the cost of internal ructions and litigation from one county which delayed work another 2 years.

The Authority has since refinanced its loans, persuading lenders the project is viable.

Construction on 47km (29mi) costing $386m is currently into its final year, with two stretches opened toll-free to traffic early July 98 — an 11km (7mi) extension at the south end and 16km (10mi) up near the airport. The midsection of 20km (12mi) spanning I-70 should be opened by July 99 for a continuous operating length of 55km (34mi). The designer and builder is Platte River Contractors a joint venture of Fluor Daniel and Morrison Knudsen.

Traffic on the 1991-opened tolled stretch was running around 11k veh/day last year for just $2m of annual toll collections, hardly enough to cover operating costs. The toll on this part has just been raised from 50c to 75c at the same time that the new sections are open for an introductory toll-free promotion, which Hogan says will probably last about two months. Toll free the new sections are adding about 13k veh/day to traffic.

A traffic and revenue study done for the financing of the currently building sections projected early year transactions of 73k tolls/day ($16m/yr rev) split between 4 mainline plazas and 10 ramp plazas in the 55km section due to open next summer. By 2005 this was due to rise to 188k tolls/day ($98m/yr) and to 248k in 2010 ($167m/yr).

Hogan says that he’s pleased with the traffic on the new stretches which is growing steadily. The Authority did little publicity. They decided to hold off any marketing until next summer when they have a continuous roadway to offfer the public.

Payment is currently by cash or Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW) tags, an unusual 1970s radio frequency design that has proven troublesome for tolling. The SAW tags will be shortly phased out in favor of California style Title 21 backscatter tags from Sirit being installed by MFS. Toll collection is done under contract by Alltech, the PB sub.

Northern stretch

On Aug 3 the Authority will look at responses to a recent request for qualifications for Finance-Design-Build (FDB) proposals for a further northern stretch of pike, 20km (12mi) in length, likely to cost around $250m. Stretching from the edge of the airport property at 120th Av this will go west to I-25 in the north completing the half-beltway. The leg involves a 260m (850’) multiple span bridge over the Platte River floodplain, 3 railroad bridges, 3 interchanges and a toll plaza. Final FDB proposals are due Mar 99 with construction to start July 99 for targeted completion end 2001.

A traffic and revenue study commissioned by the Auth for this northern segment shows revenues $11m in Yr 2, $40m in Yr 10. Operating costs are projected as rising from $6m to $10m.

A Concept Design and Feasibility Study by MK Centennial and Carter Burgess Jun 97 suggested a 15k veh/day on opening and 29k 12 years later at the main barrier plaza on the northern segment. It commented that this segment is somewhat further from early development than other sections of the road. It found the greatest advantage to motorists came from high posted speeds and that only partial interchanges were warranted for the moment.

The MK Centennial report has some cheap and nasty interchange designs (with for example adjacent loops) which would make textbook cases of what you’re not supposed to do on heavily trafficked roadways, but at early traffic volumes the dominant object on E-470 is to make the project financeable.

Good news for the final section of E-470 is some spectacular development in the Broomfield area near the end of the pike on I-25. An Interlocken office park and a huge Sun computers complex are under construction. Many of those guys will welcome a straight shot to Denver Int Airport that the E-470 will offer. For Boulder motorists it would be convenient one day to add a further 18km (11mi) section west from I-25 to the US-36. This would provide a direct route to the airport from Boulder, but the dominant sentiment in that city is currently into “alternative” transp – there is a Northwest Parkway pencilled in on some county plans to link Boulder’s US-36 to E-470 at I-25.

US-36 incidentally was financed as a state toll road (opened 1952) and is still known by some as the Boulder-Denver Turnpike. The tolls were removed 15 years later (‘67) when the tolls had paid off the bonds. US-36 was the main and only direct and modern road Boulder to Denver. Given the alternatives people have to E-470 whether it will do anywhere near as well is going to depend on how far it does attract development along its length, because to these eastern eyes at least there’s not many wheels there yet to ride it. (Contact Stephen D. Hogan Exec Dir E-470 PHA 303 773 9588)

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