South-metro commuters took the first step into a new transportation reality Wednesday with the opening of the metro area's newest set of MnPass lanes, lining much of the crucial Interstate 35W corridor between Minneapolis and Burnsville.
And despite grumbling from commuters stuck in the regular lanes -- single drivers without MnPass transponders or carpool partners -- the Minnesota Department of Transportation declared it a success.
"It went off like clockwork," said Nick Thompson, the MnDOT engineer in charge of the project. "It was a very smooth operation and we're very happy with how it started."
Through Wednesday morning's rush, more than 3,600 vehicles, 506 of them single riders with MnPass transponders, had used the northbound toll and transit lanes, which during rush hour are reserved for buses, carpools and toll-paying drivers. The tolls ranged from 25 cents to $2.25.
Judging by the number of new MnPass accounts -- 549 opened since Sunday -- even more people plan on giving the new 35W lanes a try.
Similar lanes on I-394 have 12,827 active MnPass accounts. So far, drivers planning to use 35W have opened 1,896 accounts. The transponders carrying prepaid account information can be used on both freeways.
Count commuter Chuck Anderson among the MnPass converts.
His drive from Hwy. 13 in Burnsville to downtown Minneapolis took him exactly a half-hour. "It went flawlessly!" he said, except for a bit of congestion in the Crosstown Commons construction zone, where MnPass lanes won't open for another year. "I was in my own vehicle alone and paid $1.25 for the total commute."
A solo driver with a different perspective -- and without a transponder -- was Kevin Draves of Lakeville, who ended up late for his 9:30 class at Normandale Community College. Before today, the carpool-bus lanes were opened to general traffic at 9 a.m., and he could drive in them for free. Now those lanes have been converted to MnPass lanes, also called sane lanes, and are in operation until 10 a.m.
Drive took an extra 20 minutes
"Once I got to the beginning of the sane lane, I was enraged to find that the time had been moved back an hour. Traffic was backed up, and I was five minutes late to my class," he said. It used to take him 15 minutes to get to his exit. "Today, it took me 35 minutes."
Thompson, of MnDOT, said the longer hours more accurately reflect congestion and match up with the MnPass lanes on I-394.
As commuters adjust to the new system, the electronic signs above all the lanes will be added to the mix. A red X will signal lane closures or crashes ahead. And it will be possible for MnDOT to post recommended speeds above each lane.
"We don't want to introduce all of that at the same time," Thompson said.
The lanes are one piece of a $183 million project receiving $133 million from a federal program designed to encourage metro areas around the country to experiment with new ways of relieving congestion. The local effort includes the MnPass lanes, 2,700 new park-and-ride spaces, and new double bus lanes that will allow express buses to pass each other in downtown Minneapolis. Those lanes will open in December.
As part of the same congestion relief effort, Metro Transit launched commuter bus service from a new park-and-ride on Kenrick Avenue in Lakeville on Monday, drawing 154 people who rode to downtown Minneapolis. By Wednesday morning, many returning riders, including Jon Cowart of Lonsdale, gave the new buses positive reviews.
But Cowart does have one suggestion: "I hope the drivers are authorized to use the shoulder because until the express lane at [Hwy.] 13, we creep along with everybody else."
That idea hasn't escaped Metro Transit.
Spokesman Bob Gibbons said congestion south of the MnPass lane has delayed some buses that depart Lakeville. The agency has a request in to MnDOT to allow the buses to run on the shoulder between the park-and-ride and the MnPass lane.
There also are plans to expand the MnPass lane to the I-35 split in 2012.