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Morning rush hour traffic flowed slowly toward downtown Minneapolis as Kris Guentzel stood on an island of tranquility in the middle of a freeway.
"It's really helped having this on the interstate," said Guentzel, waiting in a new station on the median of I-35W to catch a bus on a dedicated transit lane. "Traffic this time of year is terrible."
It's going to get much worse. Bad enough, maybe, to change commuting habits.
Almost twice as many miles of Twin Cities highways will be congested by 2030, even assuming that bus and rail ridership doubles, transportation analysts predict.
Increased slowdowns will snarl a metro area already facing some of the more severe commuting delays in the nation -- about 43 hours a year per driver, according to one national study.
"You can't keep it from getting worse," said Carl Ohrn, a transportation planning analyst with the Metropolitan Council.
The trend is expected to be driven by more than 700,000 additional people living in the Twin Cities metro area by 2030 -- roughly the current populations of the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul combined.
Major highway construction like the rebuilt Crosstown Commons is not in the cards. Transportation planners, facing state budget deficits, are settling for spending just 2 percent of the $40 billion once contemplated to curb congestion growth. The state will instead create more pay lanes and transitways dedicated to buses and carpools.
Those strategies won't relieve congestion so much as provide options for commuters who don't want to be stuck in traffic.
"You're going to constantly see this growth in congestion as the metro grows -- more people and more cars," said Brian Kary, freeway operations engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Congestion costs add up
Traffic congestion causes more than frustration. Delays cost average commuters in the Twin Cites $970 a year in lost time and wasted fuel, $244 more than the average for similar large cities, said the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, a transportation research agency.
A MnDOT report this month showed that the miles of congested highways in the Twin Cities increased 18 percent from 2009 to 2010. About 21 percent of total metro miles last year were congested, defined as traffic traveling less than 45 miles per hour for a sustained period.
That percentage is expected to rise to the point that nearly half of metro highways will be congested by 2030. Miles traveled on congested roads will jump from 7.8 million to 15.4 million, according to a December 2010 MnDOT report.
Already the Twin Cities logs more hours of delay per auto passenger than many other large cities, including Philadelphia, Phoenix, Detroit, Miami and San Diego, the Transportation Institute reported.
No appetite for higher taxes
Road construction is funded by taxes on gasoline and vehicle sales and license registration fees, and revenues have fallen during the recession. There is no political stomach at the Legislature for raising taxes to expand highways.
"I don't think there's an appetite out there right now to do that," said MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel.
"For many, many years, when we were flush with money, if you built an interchange you built a diamond or a cloverleaf or some version of that," Sorel said. Partial interchanges will more often suffice in the future.
The $40 billion envisioned a few years ago would have added a lane to nearly every major highway, completing a continuous six-lane beltway on I-494 and I-694. It would have converted all or parts of some state highways to freeways, and built many new interchanges.
Now MnDOT is looking at spending perhaps $900 million on fewer general-use lanes and emphasizing bridge repair, pay lanes and preservation.
Aside from funding, there are reasons to look for alternatives to major construction.
Transportation planners say that new or expanded highways often relieve congestion for a few years, but eventually attract motorists from nearby roads.
"They tend to fill up quite quickly and then everybody's basically sitting in congestion again," Kary said.
MnDOT has noticed increased congestion on northbound 35W between 46th Street and downtown Minneapolis since the Crosstown Commons was rebuilt.
"There has been a decrease in congestion in the area around the Crosstown project," Kary said. "But when you remove a bottleneck that was that severe you can expect some new areas of congestion to appear immediately downstream. ... That water has to go somewhere."
Can congestion change lives?
Future congestion could alter lifestyles over time.
"Everyone's going to have to change ... what they're doing," said Ohrn, the analyst with the Met Council. "Where you live and where you work are critical in how much time you're going to spend in congestion."
The rush hour will become longer, people will avoid discretionary trips during it and four-day workweeks will become more common, said Jason Cao, a travel behavior analyst at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Those adaptations will make the congestion less severe than predicted, said David Levinson, a professor of traffic engineering and management at the University of Minnesota.
"People will change their origins and destinations as a result of congestion," he said. "You'll see more telecommuting ... as videoconferencing becomes more and more reliable."
The bus rapid transit station on I-35W in south Minneapolis, which opened in December, suggests that some innovations might take time to catch on.
At the 46th Street station, only about 50 people joined Guentzel between 7:30 and 9 a.m. one day last week to catch buses.
Ryan Otte, 32, said the freeway route is faster than other bus routes toward downtown. "It's nice to have that extra lane for buses," he said.
Jimmy Randolph, 27, is a fan of the system, but he has found a flaw. The transit lane is on the far left side of northbound 35W, and buses need "to weave all the way across [four lanes of] traffic" in less than 2 miles in order to pull into the elevated Lake Street stop on the right side of the freeway. "It definitely slows down."
MnDOT wants to build a bus station in the median of 35W at Lake Street, but it would cost $100 million and won't happen for at least three years.
"This is a major reconstruction," said Scott McBride, MnDOT's metro district engineer. "It's a matter of finding funding for it."
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504