A flash flood in the eastbound lanes of Interstate 394 during July 28’s morning rush hour brought traffic to a halt and prompted the Minnesota Department of Transportation to make an unusual move. The agency opened the carpool lane to all drivers, not just vehicles carrying two or more people, buses, motorcycles and solo motorists who agree to pay a fee to use the special lane.

Floodwaters collected under the Penn Avenue overpass after heavy rains fell between 7 and 8 a.m. The standing water forced MnDOT to close two of 394s three lanes during the peak of rush.

Gridlock ensued and traffic stacked up through three suburbs back to near Ridgedale Center and I-494 in Minnetonka. At the request of the State Patrol, MnDOT waived fees for all drivers and opened the high- occupancy-toll (HOT) lanes in an effort to get traffic moving.

But drivers apparently didn’t get the message, even through the overhead signs told drivers to use the HOT lanes. Signs above the HOT lanes marked with a diamond displayed the word “open,” the term MnDOT uses to let drivers know the lanes are open to all drivers and can legally be used for free.

“They don’t know what ‘open’ means,” said Bobbie Dahlke, a spokesman for MnDOT.

In the July 28 case, those who knew what “open” meant and took advantage sailed into downtown and saved upward of 30 minutes, while those who didn’t sat nearly motionless on the gridlocked freeway.

There was no immediate word if MnDOT might consider using another term, such as “free,” to indicate when fees are not being collected. “No toll,” however, is not an option, Dahlke said.

“We don’t like the word toll because that conjures up the image of throwing coins in a bucket.” she said.

For the record, the HOT lanes on I-394 west of Hwy. 100 are restricted to carpools, buses and motorcycles and fee-paying drivers from 6 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 7 p.m. on weekdays. They are open to general traffic outside those hours, such as on weeknights and weekends.

 

Fees are collected 24 hours on the reversible HOT lanes east of Hwy. 100.

Where are my cameras?

For the next week, crews will continue fixing joints in the concrete and resurfacing the pavement on the general traffic lanes of eastbound of I-394 between Hwy. 100 and downtown Minneapolis. All vehicles heading into downtown Minneapolis will continue share the HOT lane.

The general-purpose lanes are not the only thing out of commission. The Drive and a few readers have noticed that several cameras along I-394 between Hwy. 100 and County Road 73 have not been working for the past few weeks, and wonder why.

MnDOT said it is upgrading fiber optics in the area and had planned to have the work completed before work on I-394 began.

“Unfortunately, it is not,” Dahlke said. “We should have the work completed soon and the cameras back up.”

 

Along with the folks at the Regional Transportation Management Center in Roseville who use the cameras to monitor traffic conditions, the images from the cameras are streamed on the agency’s traffic information website, 511mn.org.


Tim Harlow * 612-673-7768