The Drive: Commuters up in arms over stuck 394 HOT gate

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2014 - 5:45 PM
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Dec. 11, 2013: Traffic was backed up on I-394 at Hwy. 101 in the eastbound lane.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Bad luck came in threes for com­mut­ers who use the HOT (hig­h oc­cu­pan­cy toll) lane on I-394.

On two con­sec­u­tive morn­ing rush hours and again on Friday, the gate arms on the east­bound side of I-394 where driv­ers en­ter the spe­cial lane (also known as MnPass) at Hwy. 100 were stuck in the down po­si­tion. MnDOT could not raise them, and that forced com­mut­ers into the gen­er­al traf­fic lanes for the rest of their trip to down­town Minneapolis. The west­bound lanes were un­af­fec­ted and the lane re­served for carpools or paying drivers was open as usu­al.

First came an e­lec­tri­cal prob­lem on Jan. 3 when an underground cable froze. MnDOT hooked up a spare cable that had been pre-wired into the system to fix that problem. Then the hydraulic sys­tem went hay­wire last Mon­day. On Friday, as temperatures warmed and “things underground moved around,” the spare cable went bad and the gates were stuck again. MnDOT installed a temporary above-ground cable and got the gates open. A “more permanent” fix will be made in the spring, said Brian Kary, a MnDOT free­way en­gi­neer.

Andrew Degerstom joked in a tweet, “time for traffic problems in Golden Valley” — a nod to the scandal in New Jersey where some of Gov. Chris Christie’s staff orchestrated traffic jams in Fort Lee.

But the latest breakdown on 394 had irate driv­ers ask­ing the Drive why the gates could not have been raised man­u­al­ly.

“For an a­gen­cy with ex­pendi­tures of $3,069,455,000 in 2013 alone, you would think that they could fig­ure out how to op­er­ate a gate!” griped one com­mut­er. “May­be this is easi­er said than done, or may­be it just re­quires com­mon sense, but couldn’t they send some­one out there with a cou­ple of wrench­es and just re­move the stop arms?”

It’s not that sim­ple, Kary said.

“The gate arms cannot be re­moved or swung out of place with­out ma­jor work to the gate arm mech­a­nism,” he said. “There is a re­lief valve for the hy­drau­lics that could al­low for the gate arm to be man­u­al­ly lift­ed, but there is no way to se­cure the arm into po­si­tion, which could cause the arm to drop back into traf­fic. There is no quick or safe way to open the gates man­u­al­ly.”

On Friday, a bottleneck developed as HOT lane users squeezed into the two remaining eastbound lanes. Traffic stacked up to near Hwy. 169 leading to a 20-plus minute drive to downtown Minneapolis during the peak of the rush.

Traffic was not as bad Jan. 3, when many peo­ple were still off work for the hol­i­days. Schools closed and many­ busi­nes­ses al­lowed employees to work at home on Monday. That kept many com­mut­ers off the road. MnDOT crews in their Mi­che­lin-man at­tire braved the ele­ments on both days to re­pair the arms, which were work­ing for Tues­day’s morn­ing rush hour. Then came Friday’s debacle.

MnDOT a­pol­o­gized for delays and in­con­veni­en­ces that re­sul­ted, but the a­gen­cy will not reimburse com­mut­ers for tran­spon­der fees, as one driv­er won­dered.

Kary said the $1.50 tran­spon­der fee is charged month­ly and the gate arm prob­lems affected only three days. Fur­ther, he said, commuters were charged only for driv­ing on the por­tion west of Hwy. 100. No tolls were col­lect­ed for the re­vers­i­ble sec­tion east of Hwy. 100 to down­town Minneapolis. □

Fol­low news about traf­fic and com­mut­ing at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traf­fic or trans­por­ta­tion ques­tions, or sto­ry ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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