State plans traffic revamp

A toll lane would shorten the commute for students who live south of campus.

McKenna Ewen

Transportation officials recently submitted a proposal to let people pay for reduced commute times.

As part of the Urban Partnership Agreement, the Minnesota Department of Transportation applied for a $700 million federal transportation grant that would create a high occupancy toll lane on 35W. Busses, carpoolers and motorcycles could use the lane for free, but solo drivers would pay to use the lane.

According to MnDOT, the free-flow lane would move at more than 50 mph 95 percent of the time, which could make commutes to the University shorter coming from the south.

“Based on existing traffic, we can measure the flow of the lane pretty well,” said Bernie Arseneau, MnDOT director of the Office of Traffic, Commerce, Safety and Operation.

“When you start looking at moving people through the corridor, transit and high occupancy vehicles make a big difference,” Arseneau said.

Many more vehicles would move through a free-flow lane than general-purpose lanes, which could also help reduce overall congestion.

“By varying the price, you can keep just the right number of vehicles going through the lane so it doesn’t become congested,” Humphrey Institute State and Local Policy Program Director Lee Munnich said.

The cost of the toll lane would vary based on the amount of congestion at the time. During times of heavy traffic, the toll price could reach $8, which very few people would be willing to pay.

Without a transit alternative, the toll lane would increase the cost of traveling downtown.

“If you can shift people to transit at the same time, you should have an impact on those general-purpose lanes,” Munnich said.

The proposal hopes to make bus transit and carpool options more appealing by reducing travel times.

At the University, 40 percent of students, faculty and staff live more than five miles away from campus.

Of all undergraduate students, 26.4 percent drive alone to campus and 21.6 percent take the bus.

“The key principle here is to offer choice and alternatives. If you’re going to price part of the road Ö there must also be better transit options available,” Bob DeBoer, Citizen’s League director of policy development, said.

“Pricing congestion is a whole different thing than tolling Ö Tolling is a way to pay for roads, but congestion pricing is guaranteeing free-flow for transit and those that want to pay,” DeBoer said.

But he argues that the state could do more to create stronger application after the U.S. Department of Transportation announces the 10 finalists for the grant June 8.

“They want to see an absolute reduction in cars, not just faster movement,” DeBoer said.

DeBoer said he would like to see one of the inside general-purpose lanes converted into a free-flow lane to help reduce the amount of vehicles traveling into Minneapolis.

MnDOT chose not to include the replacement of an existing lane in the proposal without the support of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty supports building a dynamic shoulder, which would add another lane on the inside shoulder of 35W. He does not, however, support replacing an existing lane with a toll lane because of the added cost.

Minneapolis has already converted one lane into a high occupancy vehicle lane on 394.

One factor that makes Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs a strong applicant for this grant is its use of variable pricing, which balances cost with congestion.

Minnesota has plans to create a high occupancy toll lane on 35W by 2030, but the grant would move plans to within the next three years.