Traffic congestion has been a growing issue in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area over the past few decades. Increased traffic congestion may lead to direct and/or indirect negative consequences that affect every transportation system user. Time is money, which means that the less efficient our transportation system, the higher the cost of moving goods and services in our region. Traffic congestion can cause the region to become less attractive for future economic development and job creation opportunities.
Who wants to set up shop in a region where you or the goods you provide are stuck in traffic most of the time? One tool used to address traffic congestion is a traffic demand management user fee, or congestion pricing. Congestion pricing attempts to place a monetary value on efficient travel: in, through, or along areas of traffic congestion.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) saw an opportunity to implement a pilot project to address the traffic congestion on Interstate 394. In 2005, the MnPASS program was born with the conversion of the I-394 HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes into HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes. The “sane lane” that was previously available at no charge to buses, carpools, and motorcycles, had become a new toll lane that still served the previous uses, but was now also accessible to SOVs (Single Occupancy Vehicles) for a user fee based upon the congestion levels along the I-394 corridor during peak travel periods.
The MnPASS program uses loop detectors to determine the congestion level along the corridor during peak travel periods. This statistic informs the amount of the user fee that will be charged to the SOVs users signed up for MnPASS. The user fee always ranges between $0.25 and $8.00, depending on the level of congestion. The SOVs enrolled in the program use a transponder, attached to an account, which charges them for their use of the HOT lane. Dynamic signage is used to notify users when the HOT lanes are and the current user fee. The users enrolled in MnPASS may then decide whether they wish to turn on their transponder and hit the HOT lane to avoid the congestion, or make a go of it with the common commuters.
MnPASS’s success along I-394 has led to more congestion pricing opportunities via HOT lanes in the Twin Cities. In 2007, Minneapolis/St. Paul was selected by the US DOT to participate in the Urban Partnership Agreement and Congestion Reduction Demonstration Programs. The UPA has resulted in an infusion of money to address traffic congestion through transit, telework, and tolling. Infrastructure updates by way of the “tolling” category included rebuilding I-35W to create HOT lanes that go to Downtown Minneapolis. HOV lanes have been along some portion of I-35W since the 1980’s. The new I-35W HOT lanes have been in operation since September 2009.
User fees of this kind certainly affect the behavior of those using the transportation system. Though, personally, it is reassuring to see the US DOT, MnDOT, Met Council, and the City of Minneapolis working together to mitigate congestion to improve the system for all users through other means in addition to congestion pricing.
(Photo Credit: MPR Photo/Dan Olson)