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. □
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