Starting next year, transportation in the south metro area will look very different.

A massive new project funded with a $133 million federal grant and about $50 million in state funds will bring optional toll lanes, new mass transit options and other congestion-busting measures on Interstate 35W and Hwy. 77, also known as Cedar Avenue.

We asked Nick Thompson, director of the Office of Policy Analysis, Research & Innovation at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, to answer some questions about the project. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

QHow will the commute change for people who use 35W?

AThe $183 million provided through the Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) funds 22 projects to reduce congestion and provide choices to commuters. The funding will allow the region to:

• Convert the existing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane -- commonly known as the carpool lane -- south of I-494 to a MnPASS express lane.

• Add a northbound lane to I-35W from 90th Street to I-494 in Bloomington.

• Add a southbound lane to I-35W from 106th Street in Bloomington to Hwy. 13 in Burnsville.

• Repave the surface of I-35W and add a new shoulder on northbound I-35W from 42nd Street to the downtown Minneapolis exit. Transit vehicles, carpools and MnPASS customers will be able to drive on the left shoulder during congested times. Dynamic message signs will tell drivers whether the shoulder is open or closed.

• Add more than 2,000 park-and-ride spaces.

• Implement the first phase of Bus Rapid Transit on Hwy. 77 and I-35W.

• Remove a transit bottleneck and add significant transit improvements in downtown Minneapolis by doubling the transit lanes on 2nd and Marquette Avenues and adding bus shelters and rider information systems.

QWhat are HOT lanes, and how will they work?

AHigh-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on I-35W will work much like MnPASS lanes on I-394.

During peak periods, carpoolers, motorcyclists and transit users may use the HOT lane at no cost. Drivers with no passengers may use the HOT lane if they have signed up to use the MnPASS system and have a transponder. Prior to entering the HOT lane, a MnPASS customer will see an overhead sign displaying a price. As they enter the lane, their transponder recognizes their vehicle has entered the lane and the fee is deducted from their MnPASS account. The price to use the lane adjusts every three minutes according to traffic volumes.

QHow will the transponders and other new technology work?

AThe UPA will bring a managed-corridor concept to the Twin Cities. This system uses dynamic message signs positioned a half mile apart on overhead structures over every lane of traffic. The signs can display messages that warn drivers of closed lanes due to incidents or construction, provide advisory speed warnings to alert drivers to slow down or display pricing information for the express lane. This managed-corridor system is modeled after systems used successfully in several European countries.

 

QHow much faster will traffic move? Will this remove, or rather ease, a bottleneck?

ATraffic on I-35W is expected to move smoother and faster after all of the UPA projects are completed. The biggest advantage for commuters is they will have more choices.

 

QWhere will the money from MnPASS fees go and how will it get used? What are the projected revenues?

AThe I-35W revenue from MnPASS will be used to pay for the operation of the MnPASS system, for operation of transit service on I-35W and for improvements to both the highway and transit systems and service on I-35W.

QWhen will this work begin and end?

AMost of the projects will be completed in September 2009. The installation of sign structures, fiber optics and other technology has already begun. The road construction contracts will be awarded late this year with construction expected to start in spring. There will be planned night and weekend lane closures throughout next spring and summer.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017