MnDOT study considers MnPASS lanes north of Minneapolis to Blaine

I-35W north of downtown Minneapolis to Lexington Avenue in Blaine may someday see MnPASS lanes.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the SRF Consulting Group of Minneapolis held a Feb. 19 open house at Blaine City Hall to gather comments from the public regarding MnPASS and other long-term improvements such as interchange improvements at Highway 10 and I-694 and eastbound Highway 36.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation may someday add a MnPASS lane in each direction of I-35W north of downtown Minneapolis to Lexington Avenue in Blaine to cut down on congestion. Photo courtesy of MnDOT

The Minnesota Department of Transportation may someday add a MnPASS lane in each direction of I-35W north of downtown Minneapolis to Lexington Avenue in Blaine to cut down on congestion. Photo courtesy of MnDOT

None of these projects are imminent. MnDOT is completing a long-term vision for this corridor so it knows what to expect when projects come due.

All the projects could cost about $550 million, according to a very rough estimate, and that is only if the project designs follow the plan so the government can get the best bang for the buck down the line, said Todd Polum of the SRF Consulting Group.

“We don’t have that money sitting in the checkbook right now, so we’ll have to look for opportunities over time,” said Scott McBride, Metro District Engineer for MnDOT.

Polum emphasized that this study is just a snapshot in time.

Many things such as the development of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site in Arden Hills, the Minnesota Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis or the completion of Highway 610 to I-94 can impact what order these projects happen in or how they happen.

The next step is to finalize this study, try to identify funding for certain projects and then go through the environmental reviews, Polum said.

MnPASS

A little less than one-third of the $550 million estimate would be for MnPASS lanes.

According to Brad Larsen, MnPASS policy manager for MnDOT, an additional lane would be constructed in each direction from downtown Minneapolis to Lexington Avenue in Blaine.

Polum said MnDOT analyzed having MnPASS all the way to the Highway 97 interchange in Columbus, just west of the Forest Lake border, but projected traffic counts did not justify it.

Minnesota’s first MnPASS lanes opened on I-394 between I-94 and Highway 100 in 2005. The I-35W lanes south of downtown to Burnsville opened in 2009, according to Larsen.

Carpoolers and transit vehicles can use the lanes any time. Lone drivers can only use a MnPASS lane during the morning and afternoon rush hour if they order a transponder from MnDOT.

The fee increases as the MnPASS lane becomes more congested. Larsen said the rate can be as low as 25 cents and as high as $8, but the current 23,000 active users currently pay an average of $1.50 per trip.

Anybody can use the MnPASS lanes if the electronic sign above it says “Open” during the non-peak times.

“It’s a congestion toll, not a revenue toll,” McBride said.

Larsen said MnDOT collected $3 million in revenue from its MnPASS program in 2012 and had $2.5 million in operations and maintenance costs. State law requires the money collected to be used in the corridor where it was collected, although the rules vary between the I-394 and I-35W corridors. The Legislature required revenue from I-394 MnPASS lanes to be first used to pay for the capital costs. Larsen said the last debt payment will be made this year for that project.

MnDOT this year will start constructing MnPASS lanes on I-35E between downtown St. Paul and Maplewood, which Larsen said should be open by late 2015. It is also studying MnPASS lanes on I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul, along I-494 and eventually I-94 from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport to the St. Michael-Albertville area, and south of I-494 along Highway 77.

Ken Glidden of Mounds View and some others at the open house questioned how effective and fair MnPASS lanes really are. The concern was an extra lane would be lost during the rush hours and only those with more money to spare would benefit.

Glidden sees MnPASS lanes as “privileged lanes” and said those commuting from the wealthy western suburbs to Minneapolis along I-394 have more money to spare.

He used to commute I-35W and I-35E to Minneapolis and St. Paul when working, but he is now retired.

What disturbs Glidden is he thinks MnDOT was already set on having MnPASS lanes on I-35W north of Minneapolis to Blaine by the time it held the Feb. 19 open house. He chose to attend this meeting to offer input early in the planning process and he doubts that his opinion will really carry that much weight, Glidden said.

McBride frequently drives on I-394 through Plymouth and recalls what it was like before MnPASS lanes went in eight years ago. Although there is still some congestion, it is not as bad as it used to be, he said.

John Parizek commutes between his southern Blaine home and downtown Minneapolis every weekday in about 20 minutes each way because he leaves home around 6:30 a.m. and leaves work about 3 p.m. to avoid rush hour traffic.

He is on the fence about MnPASS. He can see MnDOT’s point of view and says it can be great for buses, but he believes fixing the interchanges should be a higher priority, Parizek said.

Other parts of the project

While some people like Parizek commute to and from downtown Minneapolis for work, a good percentage of drivers are using I-35W to go elsewhere, Polum said.

A couple of bad bottlenecks on I-35W during rush hour are near Highway 10 and I-694, said William Goff, senior transportation planner for MnDOT.

Goff said an idea is to create a flyover ramp for eastbound Highway 10 to I-35W North and create an auxiliary road on the east side of I-35W between County Road I and Lake Drive to reduce traffic on I-35W.

At I-694, Polum said they could add a buffer merging lane, so that those trying to exit or merge onto I-35W are having less of an impact on vehicles trying to get through the area.

Eastbound Highway 36 in Roseville loses a third lane around Snelling Avenue, Goff said. The concept is to extend the third lane farther east to reduce Highway 36 congestion that backs up onto I-35W.

Polum said it may be possible to offer bus rapid transit in the I-35W corridor.

Blaine has a 1,482-space park and ride lot off I-35W at 95th Avenue, which is the largest in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, according to John Siqveland, public relations manager for Metro Transit.

Siqveland told ABC Newspapers in late December that the most recent counts shows about 60 percent of this lot is consistently used, which is up 2 percent from the prior year.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

 
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