Speed bumps for highway travelers

If you drove to Denver Saturday via I-70, you may have experienced the test of a new theory for traffic management: Slow down to speed up.

A similar philosophy is apparently being embraced by a few folks when it comes to highway funding. Others want to hit the accelerator on federal gas taxes. As a result, renewal of the federal gasoline tax could be the next intensely partisan fight in Congress.

The I-70 experiment on Saturday, known as “rolling speed harmonization,” involved police cars driving in the midst of eastbound traffic between Silverthorne and the Eisenhower Tunnel complex at a uniform 55 mph with their lights flashing. The theory is that the steady pace maintained by the police cars will result in a more consistent flow of traffic — and fewer accidents — than having some vehicles racing at 70 mph and other poking along at 45.

If data indicate the experiment was successful, the theory will be tested on a larger segment of I-70 next month and again during a busy weekend in ski season.

Slowing down to speed up traffic flow seems counterintuitive. However, when people frequently report six-hour trips to Denver on summer weekends, something definitely needs to be done.

But state officials emphasize that traffic harmonization is only a stopgap measure. It will not increase the capacity of the highway.

Doing that in any meaningful way will require billions of dollars — whether that involves adding enough lanes to adequately carry traffic on the busiest weekends or constructing a magnetic-levitation train between Denver and Mesa County.

But that kind of money is simply not available — either from state or federal highway taxes.

Meanwhile, most of the 18.4 cent federal gasoline tax is set to expire at the end of September as part of a larger transportation act, unless Congress renews it. In the past, renewal has been automatic. But that was said of raising the debt ceiling and funding the Federal Aviation Administration before this summer.

As a letter to the editor on this page indicates, there are some people who believe it’s time to eliminate the federal gas tax and allow states to raise their tax rates to make up the difference. Some tea-party-connected congressmen have also talked of doing that, although even anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist has said now is not the right time for such a change.

We agree. Even though states may do a better job of managing highway money, allowing most of the federal tax to expire next month would be a disaster for Colorado. It would be nearly impossible to get a measure on the state ballot this year to raise Colorado’s highway taxes to make up for the loss in federal funds, and there’s no certainty it would pass if it were on the ballot.

However, the suggestion by some Democrats to raise the gas tax next month has about as much chance of getting anywhere as does an oversize semi without chains on I-70 during a snowstorm.

Eventually, though, we’ll have to find ways to boost revenues for our highways. If we don’t, traffic on our busiest highways will be “harmonized” at a dead stop.


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