E-470 toll-road license fees should end in 2018, says Aurora mayor

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AURORA | Long-standing license-plate fees that helped launch E-470 could be nixed in 2018, though consensus regarding their necessity is split among local officials.

“I think (the fees) need to go away,” said Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan. Prior to serving as mayor, Hogan acted as the executive director of the E-470 Public Highway Authority from 1991-98 and later headed the Northwest Parkway Authority.

The long-unpopular $10 fees were approved by voters in 1988 to help finance E-470’s earliest stretches before it was even able to collect tolls. The Vehicle Registration Fee charges only residents of Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties $10 a year for access and maintenance of the 47-mile roadway. Approximately 17 miles of E-470 now runs through Aurora city limits.

“It was put in place originally to help finance the project and get it off the ground,” Hogan said. “The fact is E-470 is now well off the ground and moving into the status of being a mature, regularly used road, and as such I just don’t think that fee is required any more. So when it (the registration fee) expires I think it ought to stay expired.”

Bonds tied to the $10 fee are set to be paid off in three years, at which time E-470 officials will decide on whether to continue to impose it, according to Stan Koniz, director of finance for E-470. If the authority chooses to postpone ending the registration fee, Koniz said it would be to ensure the quality of the road stays up to snuff and to preemptively payoff chunks of the highway’s $1.6 billion bond debt.

“People get confused that the road becomes free when we pay off our bonds, well no it doesn’t,” Koniz said.

All bond debt for E-470 is scheduled to be fully paid off in 2041, at which point a perpetual maintenance fund will be in place to ensure the quality of the road and a possible authoritative takeover by the Colorado Department of Transportation in 2076. Including future accretion, the total bond payoff for the roadway is expected to top $2.9 billion, according to an E-470 Board of Directors quarterly report released last year.

Traffic counts on the road have increased in recent years, putting more strain on its infrastructure, according to Koniz. He said the increased use and popularity of the road requires diligent maintenance and widening efforts at the expense of the E-470 authority as the privately constructed road receives no state funding. The E-470 authority is composed of eight member jurisdictions from Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, as well as the municipalities of Aurora, Brighton, Commerce City, Parker and Thornton. The authority’s board also has non-voting members from surrounding municipalities as well as the Colorado Department of Transportation, Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Regional Transportation District.

E-470 shattered its previous single-day traffic record in 2014, topping 250,000 toll transactions Dec. 19, according the authority’s unaudited report for 2014. The previous record was just over 225,000, a number bested 48 times last year.

Those surging traffic numbers helped the highway rake in $150.4 million in revenue last year and marked the fifth consecutive year of growth in terms of toll transactions, according to the annual report.

With such figures, Hogan said he believes it would be hard to explain to taxpayers the rationale behind continuing the $10 fee.

“I don’t believe they would accept it,” he said. “I believe they would say enough is enough and I would agree with them.”

Vehicle Registration Fees are not uncommon however, with all 50 states utilizing the financing system in one form or another, according to Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. Although, he added that the county-based governance model of E-470 does make the fees unique and that nixing them would likely mean the authority’s board would have to make up the difference elsewhere.

“At a general level, any one that’s eliminating any fee generates the question of ‘what was that money going for and how do we make it up otherwise?'” Gray said.

And despite the possibility of E-470 continuing to charge local county residents, Gray said the situation could be worse. He pointed to State Route 91 in California and various bridges that provide access to New York City as places where toll fees shift depending on the hour of the day, with peak hour use in both places resulting in $10-$12 tolls or charges of roughly $1 per mile.

For 2015, the standard, license plate mainline toll rate on E-470 is $3.15 for a two-axle vehicle, while the prepaid ExpressToll fee, which equips customers with a windshield-mounted transponder instead of photographing a vehicle’s license plate, is $2.50 for two axles. In 2011, the E-470 authority board passed a resolution to increase the road’s fees by 25 cents every three years, split between two 10 cent increases and one 5 cent raise. Next year will see a 10 cent rise in tolls.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misstated when the fee would end. The fee ends in 2018.