The last two-lane stretches of Interstate 494 through the western Twin Cities suburbs are in line for another lane in each direction.

Using land in the freeway median in order to keep costs down, the Minnesota Department of Transportation proposes to add third lanes along 7 miles of 494 between Interstate 394 in Minnetonka and the Fish Lake Road overpass in Maple Grove.

The $50 million project is not funded nor is it on the state's construction schedule, but MnDOT wants to have the design "shovel ready" by July, said MnDOT's west area engineer Scott Pedersen. "If any additional money becomes available, this project would be a good candidate for advancement."

The two-lane section is a daily commuter headache. In the morning, southbound traffic is congested from one to two hours starting at Fish Lake Road. In the evening, northbound traffic backs up at Hwy. 55, just north of I-394, for two to three hours a day.

Widening this stretch would give the 494 loop three continuous lanes in both directions from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Maple Grove, Pedersen said.

Plymouth and Maple Grove are ready for the relief.

"Our position has been that we want them to complete the third lane up from 55 to Maple Grove," Maple Grove Mayor Mark Steffenson said.

"My office overlooks 494 going south, and every day it backs up," he said. "You know that in the morning, whether it's good weather or bad, you are going to be sitting out there."

Public comment on the project will be taken at an open-house hearing from 4 to 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at Plymouth City Hall, 3400 Plymouth Blvd.

The hearing will focus on the design and environmental impacts of the expansion and not whether the stretch would be built as a MnPass transit-toll lane, Pedersen said.

MnDOT announced this fall that it wants to add MnPass lanes to eight more commuting corridors in the metro area, including the 7-mile stretch of 494 through Maple Grove and Plymouth. The state's first two pay lanes are operating on I-394 and I-35W.

Establishing a network of MnPass lanes -- reserved during rush hours for buses, carpools, motorcycles and solo drivers willing to pay a variable toll for a faster trip -- would guarantee that at least one lane on each freeway would be congestion-free, the department has said. If pay lanes become congested, MnDOT says it could raise the toll or require three people in a carpool.

All of the new MnPass lanes would be built -- as the 494 is proposed to be built -- in the median or on the shoulder. That reflects a new MnDOT strategy to stretch money to more locations with "low-cost, high benefit" road improvements.

Plymouth officials oppose making the new 494 lanes MnPass lanes.

Maple Grove has not taken an official position, but Steffenson said it's his view that "there shouldn't be MnPass in place on this small section of freeway since it wouldn't be in place on the remainder of 494 going south."

A discussion and decision about MnPass lanes in this location would come after funding is found, Pedersen said.

In the past MnDOT has accelerated road projects with money provided by special state bonding bills and with federal economic stimulus money. The department is getting the 494 project ready to go with no particular funding source in mind, Pedersen said.

Costs would be held down by just adding the median lanes and not rebuilding the freeway, which MnDOT did when it widened 494 through Minnetonka, Pedersen said.

The existing pavement dates to the early 1970s, "but we believe it would be maintained at an acceptable level."

Using the median for the lanes would leave a 5-foot shoulder on the inside compared with 12 feet now, he said. A barrier would be built to separate the two sides of the freeway, he said.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711