Copyright 2004 Star Tribune
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
October 4, 2004, Monday, Metro Edition
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1A
LENGTH: 1308 words
HEADLINE: I-394 plan could make driving a hard bargain;
Officials won't know for sure how well the state's foray into toll roads will work until they're running.
BYLINE: Laurie Blake; Staff Writer
When toll price signs light up on Interstate Hwy. 394 next spring, drivers will embark on one of the biggest traffic experiments in state history.
Traffic-weary commuters from around the Twin Cities will be watching to see what happens when I-394's carpool-bus lanes become Minnesota's first electronic toll lanes - open to solo drivers willing to pay a toll.
Anticipation is high that the lanes will offer a welcome new choice. But as the operating plans move to Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau for approval this week, concerns remain about potential safety and congestion problems as drivers learn to navigate the freeway changes.
Will the six new entrance points to the lane along its 11-mile stretch from downtown Minneapolis to Wayzata pose delays for carpools and buses that can now enter the lanes without restriction west of Hwy. 100?
As drivers weave across two general lanes to reach the toll lane entrances, will they create congestion and safety problems in the general lanes?
Will traffic from toll lane drivers worsen delays at the Lowry Tunnel?
After studying these and other issues for a year as chair of the I-394 Community Task Force, Henry Van Dellen said adjustments may be needed but: "I'm satisfied that we are starting in the right place. We are going to evaluate and adjust as we go."
Does he think it will work?
"I think absolutely it's going to work as expected in terms of giving commuters a choice they didn't have before to make a fast trip for a user fee. My caution is, don't expect 394 to suddenly become uncongested in all the general-purpose lanes."
The I-394 toll lanes were approved by legislators and endorsed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2003. The price tag is nearly $11 million, and the toll lanes are expected to cost $1.5 million a year to operate.
Molnau, also the state's traffic commissioner, is expected to sign off on hours of operation, points of access, enforcement and the types of vehicles permitted to use the lanes. Next, the Minnesota Department of Transportation will put the tolling technology in place and educate drivers about its use. The toll system should be ready to operate by March but an opening date has not been set.
Physical changes to make the tolling operation a better fit with the freeway would be done in a future second phase - after it's clear how the lanes work.
The Community Task Force raised these concerns as the opening approaches:
- - Limited access: Besides the entrances/exits on either end of 394, there will be six entrances. This will be a switch for carpools and buses that can now enter the lane at any location west of Hwy. 100. Will it slow them down? And as drivers move across two general lanes to reach the toll lane entrances, will they create congestion and safety problems in the general lanes?
MnDOT says having marked entrances to the toll lanes will allow drivers to be prepared for the entry of slower-moving vehicles, such as buses, into the lanes. MnDOT will monitor the buses to see if they are indeed slowed down.
- - New points of congestion: On the east end near downtown, the toll lanes will connect to downtown Minneapolis or with Interstate Hwy. 94 near the Lowry Tunnel. Will extra traffic in the toll lanes add to already lengthy delays at the tunnel for drivers in the general lanes on I-394? And will toll traffic worsen backups on the ramps to and from the lanes in downtown?
MnDOT will watch both points closely and may raise toll rates to limit toll users if problems arise.
- - Always a toll lane: The plan is to operate the toll lanes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Solo drivers would always pay something to use the lanes - even if it's just 25 cents in off hours. That is a departure from current policy that allows all motorists to use the carpool-bus lanes west of Hwy. 100 during noncommuting hours. Will the change cause new midday congestion in the regular lanes?
MnDOT says that consistent operation is the best way to stay in control of traffic flow, eliminate confusion and help drivers get used to the lanes.
But Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, who supports opening the carpool-bus lanes to toll payers, said he wanted commuters to pay only during peak times. "A lot of folks are used to leaving home a little bit later so they can use the sane lane and now they are going to have to pay for that," he said.
Peggy Leppik, a Metropolitan Council member from Golden Valley, agrees.
"I think people are going to see this not as an addition to the highway but rather a subtraction. People are going to have to pay for lanes that previously they have been using without having to pay for them," she said.
Focus group discussions that included 48 drivers, bus riders, carpoolers and people who are comfortable with new technology indicate that although there are still questions and concerns about the toll lanes, drivers will use them when they want a faster trip. After bus and carpool traffic, the pay lanes will have room for 1,000 to 1,500 toll payers per hour.
Sondi Johnson, 37, of Plymouth, works at a consulting firm in downtown Minneapolis and expects to be a daily user of the new toll lanes.
"I take 394 home in the evenings and I have to pick up my youngest son at day care by 6 p.m. and my older son at elementary school by 6:15. And some days when it's tough to get out of work on time and I'm running late there is many a day when I've had a panicked feeling sitting in traffic on I-394 and I would be more than happy to pay what ever dollar amount I would need to to get into a faster lane," said Johnson, who is married to Rep. Johnson. The school day care charges $1 for every minute she is late.
Tom Goodman, an attorney who lives in Minnetonka and works at a law firm in downtown Minneapolis, also expects to use it every day. "Time is money," he said. But he has reservations about a lane that allows some people to breeze into work while others are waiting. "It's going to be there; it's going to help me; I'm going to use it," Goodman said. "But I don't think I would vote for it."
Laurie Blake is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How electronic tolls on Interstate Hwy. 394 will work:
- The carpool/bus/toll lanes will be separated from other lanes with double white lines. Toll payers will enter at designated locations along the 11-mile stretch from downtown Minneapolis to Wayzata.
- Tolls will be collected electronically. To use the lanes drivers must open a prepaid toll account and get a transponder. These dashboard radio devices will be read by overhead sensors when the vehicle passes underneath. Although the price has not been set, a transponder will probably cost about $30.
- Carpools, buses and motorcycles will continue to be free. Keeping the lane free-flowing for transit users is a top priority.
- The price will vary, going up as necessary to keep the lanes free-flowing. Expect 25 cents in off hours, $1 to $4 in rush hours and as high as $8 during snowstorms or crashes. Prices will be posted on changing electronic signs.
- Officers will enforce the lane with the help of electronic equipment.
- The transponders will be available for purchase online and at MnDOT's Golden Valley office. Accounts must be prepaid by credit card online or at the office.
- For more information, go to http://www.dot.state.mn.us/information/mnpass.
January Public information/education campaign begins.
February Dashboard transponders will go on sale.
March The system should be ready to operate but an opening date hasn't been set.
LOAD-DATE: October 5, 2004