"The cheaters have matured,'' a trooper says, as Minnesotans adapt to electronic tolls.
Minutes later, he was parked on the shoulder, handing Matt Gilroy, 26, of Bloomington, a ticket for driving in a toll lane without paying.
"It's faster," Gilroy explained while standing outside his car. "It's a risk-reward thing."
As Minnesota relies increasingly on toll lanes to relieve highway congestion, drivers and officers are learning to adapt. Catching drivers who game the system has become a full-time job for six troopers patrolling during morning and evening rush hours.
As many as nine of 100 cars using dedicated toll and carpool lanes are violating the rules, risking fines of more than $100, according to highway surveillance by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). In just four weeks this spring, 664 drivers were pulled over on suspicion of illegal driving in the restricted lanes on 35W and Interstate 394.
Still, the lanes -- and the subterfuge -- seem to be catching on. The electronic tolls appeal not only to drivers who live near MnPASS lanes, but also draw heavily from some of the wealthier Twin Cities suburbs. In Wayzata, which has a median family income nearly $37,000 higher than the national average, there's a MnPASS account for every five residents. In Excelsior, there's a MnPASS account for every nine residents.
"Every once in awhile, you stop a ... really nice car and the account's suspended because they're not making their payments," said Capt. Tom Fraser, who heads enforcement efforts for MnPASS. "If ... the account is delinquent or suspended, the odds are more likely that it's going to be in a really nice car than in a junky car."
Despite the violations, MnDOT officials say the toll lanes are working as hoped: reducing congestion and smoothing out rush-hour flows.
MnPASS doesn't come close to paying for itself because building the dedicated lanes and installing equipment to track vehicles cost tens of millions of dollars. In 2010, revenues from tolls and leases of the electronic gear brought in slightly more than the nearly $2 million cost of operating MnPASS.
But MnDOT says the pay lanes were never intended to make a profit -- only manage traffic more efficiently so the state could reduce the need to spend even more money building highways.
The agency says Minnesota will have only a fraction of the perhaps $40 billion needed for Twin Cities road projects over the next 20 years.
"It's not a strategy for making revenues, it's a strategy for adjusting tolls to maintain performance," said Nick Thompson, director of policy and strategic initiatives at MnDOT.
The state expects to add two miles of toll lanes next year to 35W in Burnsville and plans more MnPASS lanes on Interstate 35E and elsewhere in the Twin Cities. Drivers who want to travel in the restricted lanes without carpooling install electronic gear on their windshields to track tolls. Electronic highway signs post higher or lower tolls to discourage or encourage use of the restricted lanes depending on traffic flow.
Tolls typically range from $1 to $4 during rush hours but can climb as high as $8, prompting some drivers to try to beat the system.
Driving without a pass
Back when only carpoolers used the lanes, passersby sometimes reported seeing a mannequin in the passenger seat of a car.
"We caught two of them over the years," Fraser recalled.
But when electronic tolls arrived in 2005 on Interstate 394, it introduced a trickier dimension for law enforcement. MnDOT pays the State Patrol $450,000 a year to use high-tech sleuthing to detect possible violators. Their equipment detects whether a car in a lane has a toll transponder, and whether the account holder has paid recently. As many as 9 percent of drivers are violating the rules on 35W, and as many as 5 percent are violating on 394, MnDOT says.
Troopers cited 223 motorists for driving without the MnPASS account needed for those who aren't carpooling, and gave warnings to 49.
And 21 drivers who held MnPASS accounts were cited for misusing them to avoid paying tolls.
"The cheaters have matured," Fraser said.
"They've gotten transponders and try to cheat with them. It's amazing how many people 'accidentally' didn't have it turned on -- and forgot on the days when the toll was really high," he said.
Trooper Kloss said violators often claim they swerved into a restricted lane to avoid an accident when traffic in the general lanes suddenly came to a stop, and then had trouble returning to their orginal lane.
A more creative excuse came recently from a young man in a BMW on 35W. He said he'd been in Italy for a year and a half and returned to Minnesota unfamiliar with the MnPASS system -- even though it had been in place before then.
The quick move by a vehicle out of a restricted lane is always a tipoff.
"It's suspicious," remarked Kloss after spotting the Saturn during a recent evening rush hour.
After pulling over Gilroy, the trooper expressed appreciation for the driver's candor.
"He flat out says he's trying to get home faster," Kloss said.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504