A major expansion of the MnPASS electronic toll system advanced Tuesday in the state Senate despite some legislators' objections to charging more motorists to drive in the fast lanes.
The measure would widen 4 miles of Interstate 35E in St. Paul and dedicate a lane in each direction to MnPASS tolls, carpools and buses during rush hours.
The expansion is backed by Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, as a less costly way to reduce traffic jams than more extensive road building.
"In these times of tight budgets, we need all the tools we can get," Gimse said.
But other Republicans opposed the tolls.
"I'm just not sure why we're charging people to use those lanes," said Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing.
A divided Transportation Committee passed the measure after four Republicans failed to approve widening the stretch of 35E without the toll lanes.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation told legislators on Tuesday that electronic tolling is needed because any added general-purpose lanes will become congested soon after they're built.
"Almost every single one of them has become congested within a few years after being opened," said Nick Thompson, director of policy, safety and strategic initiatives for MnDOT.
The MnPASS lanes use variable pricing. Solo motorists who want to use the dedicated toll lanes pay fees that are adjusted to traffic levels, with tolls averaging $1.25 to $1.50. Like existing MnPASS lanes on I-35W and I-394, the tolls are charged electronically using transponders that drivers rent and display in their cars.
Thompson said the system isn't intended to make money for the state but to pay for electronic signage and other expenses of running MnPASS. He said the current system is breaking even.
The lanes would be added to a reconstructed stretch of 35E between Pennsylvania Avenue, just north of I-94, and Little Canada Road just south of I-694.
The reconstruction includes replacing the Cayuga Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and Maryland Avenue bridges and using existing shoulders to help build an additional lane in each direction for MnPASS.
The expansion was applauded by local officials near the route and other MnPASS corridors, like one along 35W, who view it as a cheaper way to reduce congestion than a massive highway construction program.
"We're just not going to have the money to do the things we wished we could do," Edina Mayor Jim Hovland said.
It also drew support from a former member of the Reagan administration, Shirley Ybarra, a transportation analyst for a Los Angeles think tank who testified Tuesday in favor of the MnPASS expansion.
'High-tech highway robbery'
But others saw it as ushering in a new era of tollways.
Lino Lakes Council Member Dave Roeser called it "high-tech highway robbery."
Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, noting that MnPASS wouldn't bring in additional revenue for road construction, proposed expanding 35E "without the onerous tolling system."
Howe proposed an expansion that would include dedicated lanes for carpoolers but not MnPASS.
Both initiatives failed, and the measure was scheduled to go to the full Senate.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504