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The final touch on the new I-35W

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE
  • Star Tribune
  • November 18, 2010 - 10:58 AM

Commuters from the south metro will wake up Friday with a lane that is guaranteed to get them to downtown Minneapolis and back home without traffic jams.

MnPass express lanes -- for buses, carpools, motorcycles and motorists who pay a toll -- are set to open on Interstate 35W from Bloomington through the new Crosstown interchange. It completes a 16-mile stretch of 35W between Burnsville and downtown that becomes the region's second pay-for-use corridor.

The rush-hour cost for motorists will vary by trip length and congestion levels. State officials estimate that 90 percent of trips will be $2.50 or less.

Hundreds of buses a day will streamline their routes using 35W's new lanes.

Removing the last orange barrel barriers and snow piles from the high-tech transit-pay lanes unleashes the full expanse of the newly rebuilt junction of 35W and Crosstown Hwy. 62, on the Richfield-Minneapolis border.

It is 14 lanes across at its widest point, including the two MnPass lanes on either side of the median. At $288 million, it is the most costly road project in state history.

The new stretch finishes the MnPass system opened on parts of 35W in September 2009 when bus-carpool lanes built between Burnsville and Bloomington in 1989 were converted to transit toll lanes.

The segment exceeds the 11-mile stretch of the region's first pay lanes in the Interstate 394 corridor west of downtown. In the next 20 years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) also has recently proposed adding 167 miles of MnPASS lanes in eight other commuting corridors.

Additions to come next year

With the final 35W pieces open, the northbound MnPass lanes extend 16 miles from Burnsville to downtown. Heading south, there are about 14 miles from just north of 46th Street to Burnsville. Two more miles will be added in Burnsville next year, when MnDOT plans to extend them between Burnsville Parkway and Southcross Drive.

About 5,800 motorists have opened toll accounts to use the lanes when they want a fast trip at rush hour. By comparison, the I-394 lanes have about 14,800 users with toll accounts.

Motorists typically pay the toll when they run into congestion in the regular lanes, something that the new Crosstown/35W interchange has greatly reduced, at least for now.

"Hopefully there is no congestion, and that is fine for us," said Nick Thompson, MnPass manager for MnDOT. To attract users, the department is offering $15 in free tolls for accounts opened before the end of the year.

By deploying more overhead electronic toll readers in more spots, MnDOT has kept the 35W lanes easier to get in and out of than the I-394 pay lanes, where a few entrance and exit points are controlled by signs and double white lines painted on the pavement.

"People like the open access because congestion points change,'' Thompson said. "It allows anybody to get in and out where they really need to.''

Bus riders may benefit most from the new lanes. Metro Transit buses will make 91 trips a day. South suburban Minnesota Valley Transit Authority buses will use them for nearly 250 trips a day, including about 120 coming north on Cedar Avenue to downtown Minneapolis and about 130 between Burnsville and Minneapolis.

Even with MnPass lanes, expect to see some buses on the right shoulder of southbound 35W to make connections east or west on the Crosstown.

Also on Friday, new traffic surveillance cameras and about 100 loop detectors embedded in the pavement to measure speeds will begin functioning in the interchange. MnDOT will use the speed information to display travel time estimates on electronic signs over the freeway and post information on traffic conditions on its website, said Brian Kary, freeway operations engineer.

Traffic data collected by the loop detectors will allow MnDOT to draw conclusions about how much the new interchange has improved traffic flow, he said.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

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