The gap between revenue and potential projects has CDOT thinking creatively. In addition to courting P3s for new projects, CDOT is focusing on operations to improve traffic flow on existing highways. Last year, the department hired a new director of transportation systems management and operations, Ryan Rice, to push CDOT's emphasis on operations.

The technology used by the operations group isn't new, but CDOT is using it aggressively to lessen congestion. In addition to controlling access to freeways through metered on ramps, CDOT's operational strategies focus largely on helping drivers avoid, and when necessary, respond quickly to accidents, which make everyday traffic jams far worse.

The newly revamped U.S. 36, for example, will feature intelligent transportation system boards that advise drivers when to change lanes to skirt accidents ahead. The electronic signboards will also allow the agency to experiment with pricing in the new eastbound I-70 toll lanes in the Mountain Corridor—scheduled for late spring—in an attempt to keep paying drivers moving at around 45 mph during peak periods.

Don Hunt, the former CDOT executive director who had agreed to serve only during Gov. John Hickenlooper's first term, believes the technology for managing traffic will advance dramatically over the next decade. Hunt, Bhatt and other transportation experts envision real-time data coming from cars and from drivers' cell phones to help operations staff reduce traffic jams. Says Hunt, "It's going to give us a whole new type of information to more intelligently balance out the system to make sure it's flowing as well as it can for the demand that's occurring."

If the future of traffic management lies in the Internet cloud, then much of the present reality for Colorado resides in storm clouds, especially those on I-70, where weekend congestion has become legendary. CDOT is working with drivers and companies, from tire dealers to resort operators, to improve traffic flow.

On one stormy winter day last year that CDOT staff dubbed "snowmageddon," the agency recorded 56 spinouts on I-70, many involving cars with nearly bald tires, says CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford. CDOT quickly launched an educational campaign urging drivers to inspect their tires and invited tire retailers to check equipment at mountain resorts and offer discounts on new tires. Resort owners also helped out, with early-bird and extended stay deals aimed at easing traffic during weekend peak times.

RAMP Funding

Another key piece of CDOT's strategy, begun last year, involves a new way to manage money for projects. Called the Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP), the program represents a departure from past practice, in which CDOT saved up all the funds it needed before beginning a project. Now the agency is releasing approximately $1.5 billion over five years—around $300 million per year—to get started on projects that otherwise would have waited.

Current RAMP-funded projects include the $116-million I-25/U.S. Highway 24 connection in Colorado Springs; the $74-million Arapahoe Road interchange in metro Denver; and the $26.6-million widening of Colorado State Highway 9 between Frisco and Breckenridge. RAMP funding also accelerated the westbound tunnel project on I-70.

With so much to do, Bhatt finds little difficulty rolling out of bed in the morning. "There aren't many other jobs where everybody in your city, your town, your state, your country gets out on your system every single day, usually at least twice a day," he says. "And we're responsible for getting them from their home to their job, their kids to school, their groceries to their table, their goods to the market. We touch every piece of everyone's life a number of times every single day … I think that if we make good decisions today, we'll continue to have a positive influence for a long time."

For Coloradans, those decisions—principally about ways to pay for highway construction and maintenance—will profoundly influence the state's continued growth.

Says Laipply, "Transportation is such a backbone of our economy that if we're really serious about having a robust economy, we've got to invest in transportation."