More metro pay lanes are in mix

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2010 - 7:32 AM

As part of a new "low-cost, high-benefit'' strategy to road improvements, MnDOT is proposing adding eight more MnPASS pay lanes throughout the Twin Cities area.

Now that more than 20,000 motorists are paying to use the metro area's first two MnPASS pay lanes, the Minnesota Department of Transportation wants to add them to eight more commuting corridors throughout the region.

One of them, on Interstate Hwy. 35E between St. Paul and Little Canada, could be under construction within two years.

And for future lanes, MnDOT is floating the idea for the first time of charging carpools and motorcyclists, or raising the carpool-for-free threshold to three people, depending on congestion levels.

In a new report, the department claims success with transit-toll express lanes on I-394 and I-35W and proposes an additional 167 miles of MnPASS lanes in the next 20 years.

Although MnDOT says commuters have accepted the express lanes, some cities say MnPASS lanes are no substitute for general purpose lanes.

Future MnPASS pay lanes would be built on the shoulder or in the median as part of a new MnDOT strategy to stretch money to more locations with "low-cost, high benefit" road improvements.

Rather than funding a few big ticket road projects a year, MnDOT's new priority is to take on more smaller projects that deliver 80 percent of the benefits of bigger projects at 10 to 20 percent of the cost, said Scott McBride, MnDOT's metro district engineer.

He called it a philosophical "change in the way we are doing business."

Establishing a network of MnPASS lanes -- reserved during rush hours for buses, carpools, motorcycles and solo drivers willing to pay a variable toll for a faster trip -- would guarantee that at least one lane on each freeway would be congestion-free, McBride said.

If pay lanes become congested, MnDOT could raise the toll or require three people in a carpool, McBride said.

The first new MnPASS lanes could be started within two years on I-35E between St. Paul and Little Canada as part of the Cayuga Bridge rebuilding. Cost of the 8-mile section is pegged at $75 million to $90 million.

Second-priority locations, where it would take longer to get the lanes built, are: I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul; I-35W from Minneapolis to Blaine; I-35E between Vadnais Heights and Little Canada, and Hwy. 36 between I-35W in Minneapolis and I-35E in St. Paul.

Longer-term locations are: Hwy. 169 between Shakopee and Eden Prairie; north Hwy. 77 between Apple Valley and Bloomington, and a long stretch of I-494 from Bloomington to Maple Grove.

Money is available for the I-35E MnPASS lanes as a piggy back off the bridge project. Otherwise no funding has been set aside to build the pay lane network.

MnDOT plans to start working with communities to get segments ready to go as funding becomes available, McBride said. Each would be proposed to allow time for legislators, local officials and residents to comment, said MnPASS manager Nick Thompson.

Suburbs worry about growth

Plymouth, where I-494 drops from three lanes to two, objects to getting MnPASS lanes on its stretch instead of a new regular lane in each direction like those added in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.

Plymouth Mayor Kelli Slavik said her city has worked for more than a decade to get general lanes added to open the traffic bottleneck.

Suburban officials outside the Interstate 694-494 beltway also have complained that MnDOT's new strategy will not keep up with population forecasts for their communities.

The Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a road and transit advocacy group, said MnDOT should keep planning bigger road expansion projects even if the state doesn't have the money now.

"Our concern is that as a region we don't just throw up our hands and say, 'Well, there is never going to be enough money so forget it,''' said alliance executive director Margaret Donahoe.

McBride said communities may choose to wait for bigger preferred projects, but those "are not in our vision right now. As far as we are concerned, they would be waiting a long time."

It may come down to a choice between building MnPASS lanes or no new lanes, said Thompson. "In many of our corridors we are only going to build one more lane in each direction -- that is all that space provides."

MnPASS lanes had 1 million paid trips last year, MnDOT said. It also cites high retention in the toll accounts and a survey of 500 users last year that found 91 percent satisfied or very satisfied with the lanes.

"A lot of indicators tell us that people really like to have this choice especially because it's optional," Thompson said.

No more free carpools?

MnPASS lanes are free to carpoolers and motorcyclists. Solo drivers who want to avoid congestion pay from 25 cents to $8, depending on length of trip and congestion levels.

For proposed MnPASS lanes, MnDOT wants to consider charging carpoolers and motorcyclists the same rate as solo drivers to bring in more revenue to help pay for the lanes. It also would make police enforcement simpler and less costly and keep traffic moving freely on the MnPASS lanes by subjecting all vehicles except buses to the variable tolls, it said.

The pay structure for future lanes is another point to discuss, Thompson said.

On 394 and 35W MnPASS lanes, toll prices were set to minimize congestion, Thompson said. "It wasn't to maximize revenue. Sometime in the future there might be a policy decision to change that."

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

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