Rush-hour traffic dropped dramatically with the onset of the coronavirus, and the decline has been particularly evident in the MnPass lanes, where the number of trips taken each day by solo drivers who pay a toll has dropped by 86%.
Before COVID-19, motorists who a paid a toll to use the lanes on Interstate 394, Interstate 35E and Interstate 35W made about 12,300 trips a day. Since schools closed and many employees started working at home after Gov. Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order in mid-March, the daily average has fallen to just over 1,700 trips, according to a recent report from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Counts show toll-paying drivers made about 62,000 trips in MnPass lanes the last week of February. By the middle of June, the weekly number was fewer than 15,000. The numbers do not count carpoolers, buses and motorcyclists who can use the lanes for free.
“With very little congestion, there is very little demand to use them,” said Brad Larsen, MnPass policy and planning program director.
Carolyn Marinan, chief public relations officer for Hennepin County, has saved between $20 and $40 a month in tolls since mid-March when she started working at home and stopped using the I-394 MnPass lane. That’s money in her pocket, but it has left a hole in the MnPass budget.
The agency typically collects about $432,000 a month in tolls. But since COVID-19 hit, revenue is down 97% to $14,800 a month, according to the report. The money is 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, Larsen said.
Drivers are not rushing to close their MnPass accounts, even if they’re not using the lanes right now. MnDOT says 273 people closed accounts during March, April and May. Another 227 have opened accounts. Others, like Marinan, are holding onto theirs for when they return to work.
MnPass lanes are in effect from 6 to 10 a.m. and from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays, and MnDOT has no immediate plans to change that, Larsen said.
“At some point, congestion will return and we will need to use those lanes again,” Larsen said. “Nobody has a crystal ball as to how long that will take.”
The wide-open lanes have been too tempting for some motorists, said Lt. Gordon Shank of the Minnesota State Patrol. From March through June, troopers have issued 681 citations and 351 warnings to drivers illegally using the lanes.
“Troopers are enforcing MnPass violations and other traffic laws,” he said.
An odd place for a stop sign
Drive reader Louise Nemmers wonders why there is a stop sign on northbound Ayd Mill Road before it connects with Selby Avenue in St. Paul. She also wonders why it’s accompanied by a sign that reads “Opposing Traffic Does Not Stop” when there isn’t a cross street at that location.
Drivers coming south on Ayd Mill Road are allowed to make a U-turn there so they can access businesses, said Lisa Hiebert of the city’s public works department. “They have the right of way.”
It will be removed in August when the city starts reconfiguring the nearby intersection at Ashland Avenue. Plans call for new left-turn lanes to allow drivers to turn left from Ashland onto Ayd Mill and to allow southbound drivers to turn around there.
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