MnDOT to open some carpool lanes to paying drivers in May

The toll lanes will run from downtown Minneapolis to west of Interstate Highway 494.

Jason Juno

University graduate student Michael Corbett said that he takes Interstate Highway 394 east from St. Louis Park, Minn., on his way to the University, usually between 8:30 and 9 a.m.

Traffic is slow, especially in the lane to merge on to Interstate Highway 94, he said. He takes I-94 to the University, but if traffic is backed up, he goes through downtown.

Corbett said he is probably going to buy a transponder to use the new MnPASS lanes on

I-394. The lanes are scheduled to open May 16 and will allow solo drivers to pay fees to use car pool lanes, said Nick Thompson, I-394 MnPASS project manager.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is opening up the lanes to people willing to pay fees, because the lanes are underused, Thompson said. People riding with at least one other person can still use the car pool lanes for free, he said. This also applies to transit vehicles and motorcycles, he said.

The toll lanes will run from downtown Minneapolis to west of Interstate Highway 494, Thompson said. It cost the state $10 million to start the project, which began last year.

Interstate Highway 35W also has car pool lanes south of Minnesota Highway 62, Thompson said.

But the amount of congestion on I-394 during the morning and evening hours and the design of the car pool lanes make I-394 a better place to put toll lanes than I-35W, he said.

The area I-394 runs through is also one where residents have more income and could use some of that money to pay the toll, said Frank Douma, a research fellow for the state and local policy program at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

He said it is an innovative way to increase usage of the lanes.

“I think there’s a good potential for it to work,” he said.

To use the lanes, solo drivers merge into the car pool lanes, and the car’s transponder reads an electronic signal that deducts money from the person’s account, Thompson said. This means toll booths are not needed.

Drivers pay a toll for the freeway stretch west of Minnesota Highway 100. People pay a higher toll if the trip includes the area east of Highway 100, Thompson said.

The price is adjusted to keep traffic moving, he said.

MnDOT is not looking at any other projects like this until it sees results from this one, Thompson said.

A Humphrey Institute study showed 64 percent of people living in the I-394 area think the tolls are a good idea, Douma said. The survey was released in March and conducted late last year, he said.

Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed thought the tolls are a bad idea, he said. They said it is only going to help the rich, and the lanes should be open to everyone.

But the federal government will not let all drivers use the lanes, Douma said.

Other areas nationwide are using tolls in car pool lanes, he said. For example, San Diego uses some of the revenue from the tolls to operate more transit in the area, he said.

Corbett said he is graduating soon in civil engineering with a transportation focus. He said he is unsure where he will be driving once he graduates but might buy a transponder anyway.

“If I was running late for a class or something, I’d be willing to pay even a higher amount, perhaps $5 to $8 in some cases,” he said.

People can start signing up to use the toll program April 11.