A back seat for 2-seat own­ers

Mo­torists driv­ing small ve­hi­cles feel they’re get­ting passed over.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Aguilar

Mo­torists who like to drive in a more com­pact fash­ion — sports cars, small pick­ups and Smart cars — are about to get the squeeze.

Start­ing Jan. 1, high-oc­cu­pancy ve­hi­cle ex­press lanes on In­ter­state 25 and the Boul­der Turn­pike will be free for cars with three or more oc­cu­pants only, forc­ing own­ers of two-seater ve­hi­cles to pay up if they still want to travel in the car­pool lane.

For Don Gor­don, former vice pres­i­dent of the Z Car Club of Colorado, bump­ing up the min­i­mum num­ber of pas­sen­gers in a car from two to three to qual­ify for free use of car­pool lanes — a con­cept known as HOV 3 — with­out carv­ing out an ex­emp­tion for ve­hi­cles that aren’t built to hold more than two peo­ple is frus­trat­ing.

“I feel like I’m be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against,” the Aurora res­i­dent said.

It’s es­pe­cially vex­ing due to the fact that mo­tor­cy­cles will con­tinue to be al­lowed to use the HOV ex­press lanes with­out hav­ing to cough up a penny for the priv­i­lege, Gor­don said.

“I would think there are more peo­ple driv­ing two-seaters than are rid­ing mo­tor­cy­cles,” said Gor­don, who likes to take his Nis­san 350Z out for a spin from time to time. “This is silly — some­body must not have thought this through.”

But the Colorado Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion said the state’s new HOV 3 pol­icy was thor­oughly vet­ted be­fore be­ing put into place. Amy Ford, an agency spokes­woman, said tolled HOV 3 lanes were adopted by the CDOT’s Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion nearly four years ago — to start op­er­a­tion in 2017 — pri­mar­ily as a way of en­sur­ing re­li­able travel speeds on Colorado’s in­creas­ingly crowded and un­der­funded high­ways.

CDOT teamed up with pri­vate con­sor­tium Ple­nary Roads Den­ver to build, op­er­ate and col­lect tolls on the man­aged lanes in the metro area. With­out that pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship, CDOT wouldn’t have had the money to add ca­pac­ity to U.S. 36 and I-25 for years, Ford said. The trade-off was mov­ing from the twooc­cu­pant HOV sys­tem now in place to an HOV 3 sys­tem en­com­pass­ing all ve­hi­cles ex­cept mo­tor­cy­cles, which are pro­tected by fed­eral law from hav­ing to pay to use car­pool lanes.

“A lot of the fi­nan­cial mod­el­ing (for the ex­pan­sion projects) was pred­i­cated on go­ing with HOV 3,” she said.

Ford ac­knowl­edged that own­ers of dual-seat ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing Mi­atas, Smart cars, small-cab pick­ups and Corvettes, will be “im­pacted” by the new pol­icy but noted they still ul­ti­mately re­tain the choice of how to travel.

“The car­pool el­i­gi­bil­ity is a par­tic­u­lar use of the lane, but it doesn’t pre­clude you from be­ing able to use it — it just pre­cludes you from be­ing able to use it for free,” she said. “HOV is not about fill­ing a ve­hi­cle, it’s about mov­ing peo­ple in an HOV ca­pac­ity.”

Colorado is not the only state to tell two-seat ve­hi­cle own­ers to go pound sand. Vir­ginia also makes such cozy car driv­ers pay to use its HOV 3 lanes.

“We have to in­crease through­put of peo­ple, not ve­hi­cles,” said Ta­mara Rol­li­son, a spokes­woman for the Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. “Now when we make trans­porta­tion im­prove­ments in north­ern Vir­ginia, it’s about mov­ing more peo­ple with fewer ve­hi­cles. We sim­ply don’t have enough pave­ment for sin­gle ve­hi­cles.”

But on the other side of the coun­try, Cal­i­for­nia does make an ex­cep­tion for two-seat cars, though only in the Bay Area. Ac­cord­ing to the Cal­trans web­site, “orig­i­nally fac­tory de­signed ve­hi­cles with a max­i­mum two-seat oc­cu­pancy may ac­cess the HOV(3+) lanes as long as there are two oc­cu­pants in the ve­hi­cles.”

The Cal­i­for­nia leg­is­la­ture in 1995 granted an ex­cep­tion to two-seater ve­hi­cles to cross the Bay Area’s toll bridges in the HOV 3 lane at a re­duced charge or toll-free and, for sim­plic­ity’s sake, ex­tended that priv­i­lege to the rest of the toll road sys­tem in and around San Fran­cisco, ac­cord­ing to Cal­trans spokes­woman Angela DaPrato. Since the only toll bridges in Cal­i­for­nia are in the Bay Area, DaPrato said that is the only place in the state where the ex­emp­tion is made.

That’s the way Brian Baum­bach, a Dou­glas County res­i­dent and a mem­ber of the Peak to Peak Mi­ata Club, thinks it should be in Colorado.

He was driv­ing his 2001 crys­tal-blue Mazda Mi­ata with his wife on I-25 recently when he saw the over­head signs warn­ing of the switch to HOV 3 on the first of the year. His first thought was that by in­clud­ing two-seat ve­hi­cles into the pay­ing class of ve­hi­cles in the HOV lane, Ple­nary Roads was sim­ply look­ing for new ways to “in­crease their prof­its.”

“It seems a bit unfair,” he said. “If your ve­hi­cle is full, it should be al­lowed to travel in the HOV lane for free.”

Some state law­mak­ers have sym­pa­thy for the co­nun­drum faced by Colorado’s class of dual-seat driv­ers. Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Long­mont, at­tempted to run a bill ear­lier this year that would have de­layed the im­ple­men­ta­tion of HOV 3, but the ef­fort didn’t make it out of com­mit­tee.

“I think it’s unfair,” he said. “They are get­ting the short end of the stick. We should be en­cour­ag­ing car­pool­ing not dis­cour­ag­ing it.”

Singer said the need for HOV 3 is a symp­tom of the state’s lack­lus­ter trans­porta­tion fund­ing sit­u­a­tion, which in large part de­pends on a gaso­line tax that hasn’t been raised in more than two decades. More fuel-ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles haven’t helped in keep­ing rev­enues steady, prompt­ing CDOT last month to an­nounce a pilot pro­gram that would as­sess the fea­si­bil­ity of charg­ing driv­ers by the mile for use of the state’s roads.

In the mean­time, twoseat driv­ers such as Nate Der­man said it all comes down to whether get­ting as many peo­ple as legally pos­si­ble into a ve­hi­cle — even if that num­ber is two — is a be­hav­ior that should be re­warded or not.

“My car is full. I shouldn’t have to pay,” Der­man said. “On Jan. 1, you’re go­ing to see a lot of two-seaters with a doll in the back.”

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