Colorado Express Lane Transponder Free – Sort Of

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Not long ago, I, like many other Coloradoans, bit the bullet, and ponied up $35 for a “switchable transponder,” so that I could use the express lanes for free while carpooling.

Wait. That probably doesn’t make too much sense. Let’s back up.

Free, But You Have to Pay, Carpool Lanes in Colorado

Colorado, like lots of other states, doesn’t have enough money to maintain its roads and highways. I’m going to go ahead and blame Congress, but that is neither here nor there, as roadways become inadequate. So, the Colorado Department of Transportation, sort of affectionately referred to as CDOT, has gone the route of having private companies pay for extra lanes and then letting them charge for them as express lanes.

On its face, this isn’t the best policy, but money is money, and if you don’t have it, this is better than nothing. What it does offer, is a way to skip traffic, but it costs more than it probably should, especially if you were using it frequently. That being said, it sure is nice to have an express lane there when you have to get from Downtown to Boulder quickly during rush hour for a special occasion, or something.

free switchable pass express toll carpool lanes cdot

Now, because everyone loves being green, Colorado, like a lot of other states will give you a break and let you use the Express Lanes for free if you are a “carpool,” currently defined as two or more passengers per vehicle.

It used to be that if you had a few people in your car, you just went in the carpool lane, and if a cop noticed there weren’t at least two of you, he’d pull you over and you’d get a ticket. Otherwise, free is free.

This works awesome for me, since I’m a dad who lives near downtown Denver, and so, I’m usually only on the highway, during rush hour at least, with at a kid or two in the car. (Most often, it’s me, the wife, and both kids, so even if they kick the number up to 3 per vehicle, I’m still solid.)

But, somewhere along the line, they decided that just having the people in the car wasn’t enough. You also had to have a “switchable pass” which is basically a transponder you stick to your windshield that radios a signal to the express lane monitors so they can track your car. The “switchable” part is that you can slide a lever back and forth to change from HOV (high occupancy vehicle, or carpool) to “charge me up the wazoo” to use the express lane. (Actually, now that I think about it, it actually says “Toll” not that thing about wazoo.)

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That’s all fine and dandy, but they also decided that the transponder wouldn’t be free. You have to pay $15 for the transponder. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, you also had to deposit $20 because the way the transponder is supposed to work is that you add money to an account and they deduct it whenever you use the carpool lane. The point of all this is so that they don’t have to spend the time, effort, and money to track down and bill people for using the express lanes. They’ve had something like this forever, it just used to be an optional thing that only people who paid for express lanes a lot bothered to do.

So, some time earlier this year, when both the Boulder Turnpike Express Lanes, and the north I-25 Express Lanes came online with their free, but only if you send us $35 for a transmitter and deposit, car pool lanes, I signed up and sent them my $35, and bitched about it the whole time.

I stuck the transponder thing on my window, set it to HOV, and haven’t touched the thing since. (It is actually invisible behind my rear view mirror, so I hardly notice it.

Express Lanes Carpool Rebate

Well it turns out that gouging Moms and Dads for the ability to use the free carpool lanes to the tune of $15, plus a $20 deposit didn’t go unnoticed and the State Legislature took up a bill that might have forced the Express Lane people to tone down their evil mustache twirling. It didn’t pass, but the corporate suits noticed and tried to come up with a way to fix things without, you know, having to be completely benevolent.

As a result, I got an email this week saying that I get a “refund” of the $15 I paid for the transponder, in the form of a $15 Visa gift card because they’ve decided to let the passes be free for anyone who wants it just for carpool. Fortunately, for me, I haven’t tried to use the $20 deposit yet because then you didn’t get the transponder for “car pool only” and I wouldn’t get the $15 refund.

Here is where it may still be plenty evil.

According to the website, if I use the Express Lanes that you have to pay for, then, I have to pay back the $15 for the transponder (don’t worry, they’ll bill the credit card they have on file). But, and here’s the rub, I STILL HAVE A $20 DEPOSIT that they made me pay when I setup the account!

So, if I ever try to use the $20 deposit, I guess they’ll charge me the $15 again?

I’ve sent the customer service email a message. We’ll see what they say.

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