Tuesday, March 8, 2011

MnPass - "Lexus Lane" or Robin Hood?

High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes currently exist in seven states and are planned in five more. The Twin Cities has two HOT lanes, called MnPass. The first was implemented on I-394 in 2005 and the second was recently implemented on I-35W. The reasoning behind the HOT lanes in the Twin Cities is to improve efficiency, maintain free-flow speeds, and generate revenue to make transit and highway improvements. This all sounds great, but do the MnPass lanes actually generate revenue or are they just a way for the rich commuters to get to and from their destinations faster?

MnPass works by charging non-carpoolers a fee for using the lane. This fee starts at $0.25 when traffic congestion is low and increases gradually as traffic congestion increases. Basically, someone can pay $4.00 or more to enter the MnPass lane to bypass traffic. If someone wants to participate in MnPass they need to get a transponder for their car and each time they pass in and out of the lanes, their account is charged.

MnPass and other HOT lanes across the country have become a pop culture reference, “Lexus Lanes,” which solidifies in many people’s minds that these lanes are unfair ways of decreasing commuting times of the rich. But if the lanes actually generate revenue for transit, like they are intended, could these lanes be seen as a “Robin Hood” way of taking money from the rich for driving in the lanes and giving it to the less fortunate in the form of transit improvements?

The Humphrey School’s very own Jason Cao is leading a study to determine what the actual societal benefits of MnPass are. The initial research for the study showed that MnPass has improved safety and mobility along I-394 but it has not generated any revenue. Hopefully this study will answer the question of MnPass as a “Lexus Lane” or a transportation version of Robin Hood.

What do you think? Are MnPass lanes a viable way to reduce congestion and increase the travel time for some commuters? Or is MnPass a fee that creates inequalities in Minnesota’s transportation system?

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