Copyright 2004 Star Tribune
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
September 21, 2004, Tuesday, Metro Edition
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1B
LENGTH: 1535 words
HEADLINE: Tolls won't cover cost of lanes;
Consultants studying privately built pay lanes for commuter use have found there is enough traffic to make the lanes attractive. But there is one caveat.
BYLINE: Laurie Blake; Staff Writer
Traffic delays are bad enough in the Twin Cities metropolitan area to make privately built, congestion-free toll lanes attractive to drivers, but the lanes would not pay for themselves.
That is an early finding of a $474,000 consulting study on the prospects for the optional pay lanes proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
The lanes wouldn't pay for themselves because the Twin Cities area does not have the kind of interminable Chicago-style congestion that would prompt a lot of drivers to pay for a faster trip.
"We are not seeing the level of congestion that is jumping off the charts," said Marc Cutler, senior vice president of Cambridge Systematics Inc., the Massachusetts consultants hired by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to do the study.
The full study will estimate how much of the cost of lane construction would be paid by tolls. And by February the firm will give a full public report on how Minnesota could proceed with toll lanes as a way to expand roads and relieve congestion.
Examining traffic counts and constraints to construction, the consultants will consider:
- Radial toll lanes that would provide reliable travel from all directions into Minneapolis and St. Paul.
- Two versions of tolls on extra lanes added to the Interstate Hwy. 494-694 beltway encircling the metro area.
- Pay lanes on 10 freeway segments where congestion is especially bad and where new lanes could easily be built.
- Tolls collected on four future busways, allowing paying drivers to join the buses in express lanes.
Looking for an answer to increasingly congested roads and seeking to boost the state's road- building budget without raising the gasoline tax, Pawlenty and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau announced in December that the state would entertain proposals for privately built lanes financed with driver tolls.
Molnau, who also is the state transportation commissioner, said that she is undeterred by the finding that the lanes would not pay for themselves. "We knew we would have to put up a percentage," she said. The full study will reveal how much.
She said she remains convinced that tolls are one way to have users voluntarily help finance new lanes that are needed. And having private firms put up some of the up-front costs of construction would leave MnDOT with money to spend on other projects, she said.
But the fact that the lanes wouldn't pay for themselves may make them of greater value for congestion relief than for revenue. Because tolls would regulate use of the lanes, they would guarantee drivers a trip free of traffic delays at all hours of the day.
"We should be looking at this as a traffic management tool," said Carl Ohrn, a senior planner for the Metropolitan Council. "This provides a premium level of service for those who need to make that trip on a schedule. It will always be congestion-free."
The Federal Highway Administration sees value in the lanes simply as an alternative to congestion, said David Graeber, transportation engineer in the Highway Administration's Minnesota office.
How much weight Minnesota officials want to put on the benefit of relieving congestion will be a decision that shapes how much public money the state is willing to put into the lanes, Graeber said.
The Federal Highway Administration's Minnesota office has assigned a team to watch and analyze Minnesota's approach to the lanes.
"It's important, because policy decisions that are made on this topic have long-term ramifications for the highway transportation system in the Twin Cites," Graeber said. "It's a new way of doing business. Certainly the rest of the country will be watching."
In its consideration of toll lanes, Minnesota is joining Virginia, Florida and Georgia, among other states. California has two of them in use.
The Minnesota study is aiming to answer questions about where optional toll lanes would likely succeed, how many people would use them, how much public money would be needed to support them and how privately built lanes would fit in with the road improvements already scheduled.
In the coming months, the consulting firm will narrow to three the network options for further study and then choose one or more in its final recommendation.
Although construction of a network of toll lanes would take decades, MnDOT wants to offer a map showing a network to reassure communities that they will not be alone if they approve initial toll-lane projects.
Molnau said MnDOT will be prepared to entertain proposals next spring from private firms seeking to build toll lanes within the chosen network.
The earliest that construction would start is 2006.
I-394 toll lanes
Much further along is a plan to turn the carpool-bus lanes on Interstate Hwy. 394 into toll lanes. When they open in the spring, solo commuters will be able to pay a toll and join carpools and buses in an express lane between the western suburbs and downtown Minneapolis.
I-394 will display the new technology that would be used on all such lanes. Tolls will be collected electronically as vehicles with dashboard radio devices pass under overhead readers. To get the dashboard "transponders," drivers will open prepaid toll accounts.
"That will expose this region to the new technology of tolling," said John Doan, director of the toll-lane program for MnDOT. "We don't have a culture in Minnesota that is used to the new electronic seamless tolling. For most people the image that comes to mind to the word 'tolls' is Chicago and these little toll booths where they have to stop."
If the I-394 experiment is well-received by drivers, the study will help MnDOT respond to drivers asking for more of the lanes.
Regarding questions about the equity of toll lanes and how well they would serve low-income people, Doan said the experience in San Diego is that people from all economic levels use the lane there and that most people use it occasionally, not every day.
Cutler said: "At the end of the day, nobody will have to pay a toll. It's not a highway that would be tolled - it's only a lane, and people would have the option of paying or not."
Laurie Blake is at email@example.com.
TOLL LANES Q&A
How they work
Drivers would set up prepaid toll accounts and use the lanes when they want a quick trip. There would be no toll booths. Tolls would be collected electronically via a wallet-size radio device on the dashboard read by an overhead scanner. Tolls would vary by time of day and traffic demand. The price would be posted at entrances to the lanes. In other cities, the prices range from 50 cents to $8. Enforcement would be done visually and electronically.
Toll lanes are used by 4,200 vehicles a day in San Diego; by 25,000 users a day in Orange County, Calif., and by 150 to 200 two-person carpools in Houston. (Three-person carpools are free for that lane.)
What happens next?
Consultants will pare toll network options to final recommendations by February. By spring, MnDOT plans to call for proposals from private builders that want to build lanes that fit within the network. The earliest construction would begin: summer 2006.
How can I comment?
MnDOT takes questions and comments at Mnpass@dot.state.mn.us.
HIGHWAY CONGESTION // WAYS AROUND IT
(See microfilm for map.)
MnDOT has hired consultants to report on the prospects for optional congestion-free toll lanes that would allow drivers to pay a fee for a quick trip. The consultants will begin by examining these potential toll network options. Over the next few months, three will be chosen for closer consideration. One or more approaches will be recommended by February in a report that will include estimated costs and benefits of the lanes.
- 494-694 beltway: Two concepts call for putting tolls on third or fourth lanes added to all or part of Interstate Hwy. 494-694. The dotted lines indicate that I-394 and I-35W have existing carpool-bus lanes that would be part of the toll network. This network would provide reliable service between suburbs and into Minneapolis from two directions.
- Radial toll lanes: Interstate Hwy. 35W from the south and Interstate Hwy. 94 from the east are the area's two busiest freeway segments. A radial toll network such as this would serve those two high traffic routes and provide reliable trips to the center of the metro area from the north, south, east and west.
- High revenue promise: This network is made of freeway segments promising high toll revenue combined with relative ease of construction. It includes completing the new Hwy. 610 through the northern suburbs.
- Turning transitways into toll lanes: This network shows the path of four exclusive bus transitways planned for the future. Changing plans to allow toll-paying drivers to use the lanes with the buses is one option under study.
Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation
GRAPHIC: MAP; PHOTO
LOAD-DATE: September 21, 2004