U task force to propose commmuter toll plan to Legislature

Jeremy Eiden

If a University-based task force plan goes through, commuters from metro suburbs will be able to ditch car pools and spend a little cash in order to use express lanes on freeways.

The group’s plan would open the Interstate 394 carpool lanes to drivers traveling alone after they pay a toll electronically, said Lee Munnich Jr., a public policy analyst at the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs.

Munnich and the 30 other members of the University-based Value Pricing Advisory Task Force said they plan to present their proposal to state legislators next year.

The state Legislature passed a bill to test a similar toll system in 1997, but Minnesota Department of Transportation then-Commissioner Jim Denn denied the proposal, citing public opposition.

“(Sen.) Mark Dayton, who then was running for governor, jumped on this as a project for rich people to travel faster and MnDOT chickened out,” said Gary Barnes, a public analyst for the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs.

A major concern is the lanes would decrease the incentive to carpool, one of the original purposes for the high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Munnich said his group is resurrecting the idea because of better surveillance technology and said, “People are upset that there wasn’t very many people in the carpool lane.”

He said the plan is not a solution to traffic congestion but gives people a choice.

“There is no simple solution to congestion Ö there is not enough money to build your way out of it,” he said.

MnDOT is not currently considering any toll-lane proposals.

“We’ve looked at the possibility for toll roads, but we’ve discovered that Minnesota isn’t really ready for toll roads,” said Kevin Gutkencht, MnDOT’s metro division communications director.

Sen. Roy Terwilliger, R-Edina and member of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the lanes “would be a way to alleviate capacity.

“I think it is a positive type of thing Ö congestion pricing makes sense,” said Terwilliger, who is working with the task force.

But some environmental advocates say a push to alleviate congestion could overshadow environmental concerns.

Rebecca Helgesen, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokeswoman, said legislators should focus instead on a mass transit system that “gets people where they want to go and really works.”

She said she does not know at this point whether the toll lanes would increase pollution but said “anything that increases the amount of cars on the road and miles they’re driving is of concern to us.”

Terwilliger said he isn’t sure whether the proposal will receive any serious attention in the Legislature.

Munnich said many Minnesota legislators “are concerned that the public won’t like it.”

Barnes said it will cost several million dollars to develop the system but said the task force has not yet determined how much it will cost to maintain the surveillance equipment.

Barnes said the system will be much cheaper if it is implemented only in the last stretch of I-394, which is closed off from the regular lanes by concrete barriers.

Munnich said the technology would be partially funded by a federal pilot program designed to help pay for new highway projects, including electronic tolling.

While the plan might not hit Minnesota roads anytime soon, another city has proven it can work.

The San Diego version, called FasTrak, features an electronic tolling system on Interstate 15 similar to what I-394 will have if Munnich’s proposal prevails.

Transponders, devices that tell the toll system whom to charge, are rented to drivers after a deposit is paid. Drivers are charged when they use the toll road. The toll, ranging from 25 cents to $4, depends on the amount of traffic on the regular lanes. The price is posted on digitized signs.

Gary Bonelli, a spokesman for the San Diego Association of Governments, said the proposal faced stiff public opposition when it was first presented.

“When we first started the program, detractors called it the Lexus Lane program,” Bonelli said.

The system has done little to alleviate congestion, Bonelli said. But he said the program has been so successful the California Legislature extended the three-year trial period indefinitely.

Bonelli said that was a concern in San Diego before the system’s implementation, but he said now “the number of carpools have essentially doubled.”