Truckers, move on over.

A Washington County commissioner is floating a proposal to create a freight-only lane down the median of Interstate 94 past Woodbury, Oakdale and Lake Elmo. The idea is that the parade of big trucks entering Minnesota from the east, or leaving the Twin Cities from the west, would travel on dedicated lanes to create a pipeline of commerce, freeing room on other lanes for commuters, shoppers and travelers.

"We're calling it the Gateway Corridor but it's almost the freightway corridor," said Commissioner Lisa Weik, who wants a study of how truck lanes might work from the St. Croix River to Woodbury, and possibly west to St. Paul.

But Adam Josephson, east area manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said truck traffic along that stretch isn't as heavy as Weik might think, accounting for only about 8 percent of total vehicles.

In some southern states, he said, trucks number fully a third of total freeway traffic.

Weik countered that she's looking toward the future.

"Could we see a 60 percent increase in the next two decades in truck traffic in Woodbury?" she said. "Do we all of a sudden become a magnet for big rigs and don't have the capacity on east I-94?"

Commerce in the Gateway Corridor -- a title that political and business leaders have anointed on east I-94 to promote a public transit study -- is expected to grow substantially in the next 20 years. Woodbury has a plan to develop hundreds of acres along the freeway into a business district, and the number of commuters driving into St. Paul and Minneapolis from the east has multiplied in recent years.

The new "alternatives analysis" study that begins this month will measure the need for transit along the corridor, whether on buses or trains. It will examine potential ridership, where transit lines could be built, what it would cost, and what residents think should be done.

An estimated 90,000 vehicles a day travel I-94 in the east metro, building to about 150,000 a day near downtown St. Paul. Big trucks range from 7,200 a day in that stretch to about 8,290.

"We keep hearing about transit and ridership and growth ... but what about business and commerce?" said Weik, a member of the Gateway Corridor Commission. The "golden mile" of businesses along the freeway in Woodbury will attract even more truck traffic in the future, she said, and "the actions we take now will set the stage for the future."

Truck traffic in Minnesota will nearly double by 2030, said Bill Gardner, director of the Minnesota Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations. Some of those semi loads will move aboard train flatcars, he said, but roads will see significant increases in big trucks as well.

Congestion on Twin Cities freeways slows the trucking industry as much as anyone else because Minnesota doesn't have dedicated truck lanes anywhere, Gardner said.

"Truckers try to avoid the rush hour as much as they can," he said.

A trucks-only proposal wouldn't be practical or safe in relatively short distances where trucks frequently merge in and out of dedicated lanes, he said. Other logistical questions include whether truckers would pay a toll to use the lanes, or would be required to use the dedicated lanes, he said.

John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, applauds Weik for including the trucking industry in the east-metro transportation discussion, but cautions that the dedicated-lane concept might be unworkable.

Truckers have reservations

"On principle, we'd probably have some reservations from the get-go," he said. Truckers would object to possible tolls because they already pay their share of highway costs through fuel taxes at the pump, he said, and "we don't like this idea of being forced into truck-only lanes."

Josephson said that MnDOT officials now are considering, at Weik's request, a study to determine the feasibility of special lanes for trucks.

Most commuters still own cars, Weik said, and "our freeway system hasn't kept up." Even with public transit someday humming along the I-94 corridor, she said, transportation planners will have to consider the consequences of a growing number of cars and trucks.

Weik said she's not ready to weigh the pricetag on a trucks-only lane, which she said could be financed with federal funds. First, she said, researchers should consider the need.

"I realize the costs are high," she said.

Josephson said new highways now cost from $2 million to $4 million per lane mile. Portions with bridges and interchanges range from $20 million to $100 million per lane mile, he said.

"You can spend a lot of money pretty quick," he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342