The state of Minnesota started selling off pieces of Interstate 35W last week. And the public reaction was remarkably subdued.
"Two solid lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling along, and one solitary car in the glorious new special lane," one visitor to Startribune.com harrumphed after the state introduced a new pay-to-play MnPass lane on 35W. A smattering of others agreed.
But there seems to have been no outpouring of phone calls complaining about the move. "We're hearing about health care, not MnPass," said Troy Young, an aide to U.S. Rep. John Kline, who represents the area, and whose office is located a half-minute from the freeway.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation didn't hear much of an outcry, either, said spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.
In other parts of the country, so-called "congestion pricing" -- making driving more expensive to discourage it in certain places and times -- has been a hot issue politically. As one expert has written, "except for professors of transportation economics and a cadre of vocal environmentalists, few people are in favor of considerably higher charges for peak-period travel."
Even in places where it has been successful, said Lee Munnich, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, a core of 25 percent of the folks typically resist.
The idea, he added, is quite literally to "sell off some space" on the freeway: so-called sane lanes "that are not fully utilized and have high rates of violation."
The fact that MnPass represents a new option for commuters wishing to escape congestion is a vital point to underscore, said Jon Ulrich, who chairs the Scott County Board.
"The lane was there before," he said. "But as a driver alone in a car, you couldn't use it -- at least at rush hour. Now it's greatly improved -- and even more dramatically so when the Crosstown project ends -- and if you want to pay a toll that guarantees you get to some very important meeting on time, there's a way to do it, which is a real bonus.
"But it's an adjustment period, no doubt about it."
The south metro area is the site of the second of several experiments in congestion pricing that will be launched nationwide in the very near future, said Nancy Singer, of the Federal Highway Administration, which is paying most of the cost.
Some cities that hoped to get some of the money -- such as New York City, which wanted to charge motorists to drive into central Manhattan -- had to drop out because the idea was politically radioactive. The tolling of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco met a similar fate.
In each case, the feds promised some huge benefit to places willing to impose congestion pricing. In Minnesota's case, a $133 million grant is helping to pay to push forward by as many as 10 years a series of transit improvements such as adding new coaches and making over downtown streets to hasten each bus ride by as much as 10 minutes.
Metro Transit spokesman Robert Gibbons said there are encouraging early signs when it comes to encouraging motorists to switch to the bus.
"This is very preliminary," he said, "but we did a license plate check on Thursday, and about 55 percent of the cars [at a new Lakeville park and ride] show up as transit riders from other lots nearby in previous surveys. So they may be sampling a service that's more convenient for them. But possibly the other 45 percent could be new riders," people who've ditched the car.
And that, he said, is part of the goal -- and an important point to make to those who feel stalled as others race by them in the new lane.
Starting in December, he said, the encouragement to switch will grow even stronger.
"We will have freeway signs that compare your real-time travel time, at that moment, on transit vs. the car -- and signs that tell you there are parking spaces available at a park and ride at the next exit."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023