Traffic volumes and congestion on Twin Cities freeways are rising this spring, but apparently not high enough to persuade rush hour drivers to return to MnPass lanes.

Trips taken by solo drivers who pay to use them are down more than 50% from a year ago, despite a slight increase in the first quarter of the year, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

MnPass account holders took slightly more than 68,500 trips in the special lanes on Interstate 35W, I-35E and I-394 in March, a steep drop from the 152,900 trips made in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and traffic levels plummeted.

"People are still using the MnPass lanes, but much less than normal," said MnPass spokeswoman Sue Gergen.

The need for faster trips has not been as great over the past year. While traffic volumes have seen a recovery, in April they were still 10% below pre-pandemic levels, Gergen said. And congestion has been more spotty rather than constant during peak travel times, with traffic delays most common in construction zones and in the afternoons as people travel to events and activities that have resumed.

On April 28, for example, traffic maps at 4:30 p.m. showed pockets of congestion on the Crosstown in Edina, Hwy. 169 in Bloomington and New Hope and I-94 in downtown Minneapolis, but free-flowing conditions on routes with MnPass lanes. MnDOT defines congestion as traffic moving at 45 mph or slower.

"We have a little congestion on certain routes, but metro freeways are still a long way from 'normal' congestion levels," Gergen said. "MnPass traffic will continue to stay lower until after general traffic levels come back."

The upside for account holders is that MnPass trips are costing a lot less. Trip fees have commonly been in the 25- to 50-cent range per segment — well below fees that can climb as high as $8 when general lanes are bumper to bumper, Gergen said.

As a result, MnDOT has taken a financial hit. The agency typically collects about $432,000 a month in tolls, but with the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, it took in about $179,000. The following month, it netted just $12,770 as total trips hit rock bottom.

MnPass saw some recovery last fall as some restrictions were eased. Drivers made 69,000 trips in MnPass lanes in October before a second stay-at-home order during the holidays started another decline. From November through January, drivers made just over 54,000 trips each month.

That rose to more than 57,000 in February and 68,500 in March. But revenue in March totaled just $30,800, data show.

Trip totals do not include those made by carpools, motorcycles and buses, which can use the lanes for free. MnPass lanes are in effect from 6 to 10 a.m. and from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays. All drivers can use them at no cost during other hours.

Tolls collected are used to pay for capital improvements and cover the cost to operate the lanes. Any money left over is used for transit and other highway projects. This summer, MnDOT anticipates completion of the metro's fourth MnPass lane along I-35W between County Road C in Roseville and Lexington Avenue in Lino Lakes.

At some point congestion will return, and the lanes will be needed, the agency said.

"While we anticipate an increase in metro traffic levels throughout 2021, we still don't know where or when the heavier traffic congestion will occur," Gergen said. "The nice weather can certainly play into the increase in traffic."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768