As gridlock increases and funding shrinks, many state Departments of Transportation (DOT) and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) are turning to priced managed lane networks to reduce congestion. Priced managed lanes (or High Occupancy Toll – HOT lanes) provide added, congestion-free travel lanes to improve traffic via user fees, such as tolling. For many regions, they are the only financially feasible way to add road capacity.
Yet, creating an entire managed lane network can be challenging. While most transportation policymakers realize that adding capacity alone does not solve transportation problems, using tolling and other demand management techniques to reduce congestion may not be popular with voters or politicians. Additionally, implementing a managed lanes network requires various transportation agencies that typically compete for funding and jurisdiction, such as the state DOT, the MPO, the tolling authority and the transit authority, to cooperate in developing a detailed plan on how to build the lanes and how to secure trust from voters. This can be a major challenge.
Several metro areas have been able to overcome these hurdles and develop a robust managed lanes plan. One of the best examples is Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN. In this September 2012 Innovators in Action interview I spoke with Brad Larsen, the MnPASS Policy Manager at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. In this interview he sheds light on how Minneapolis-St. Paul addressed its funding and political challenges and successfully adopted a managed lanes plan in 2010.
Baruch Feigenbaum, Reason Foundation: Why did MnDOT adopt a managed lanes plan?
Brad Larsen, MnPASS Policy Manager: In 2008, we estimated it would take about $40 billion over the next 20 years to eliminate congestion in the Twin Cities metropolitan area using traditional highway expansion strategies. We only projected about $1 billion in funding to address congestion. If we continued to improve highways with major capacity expansions and use mostly gas tax revenue, we would need to increase the gas tax by $2.00 per gallon to fund all of the improvements! This was not an option.
We partnered with the Metropolitan Council, which is the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Twin Cities to conduct the Metropolitan Highway System Investment Study (MHSIS). Some of the key strategies that emerged from the study included focusing on multimodal strategies like managed lanes, optimizing existing infrastructure and right-of-way, pursuing low cost/high benefit projects and continuing to aggressively manage the system. Collaborating on the study brought our two agencies closer together. The FHWA, local governments and transit groups also participated. MnDOT, the Metropolitan Council, and other agencies agreed to the new direction and these strategies were adopted in the Regional 2030 Transportation Policy Plan in November 2010.
Feigenbaum: After deciding on a managed lane system did the agencies study other domestic and international systems?
Larsen: Yes, we studied other systems both before and after the decision-especially international systems because other countries have been using managed lane systems for years including Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. We also examined toll and pricing systems in various states including Florida, Georgia, Texas and Washington to generate ideas for our system.
Feigenbaum: Can you describe the characteristics and location of your local projects?
Larsen: We presently have priced managed lanes on two highways: I-35W and I-394. The I-394 MnPASS Express Lane began operating in 2005 and the I-35W lanes opened in 2009. They operate from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. All other times the lanes are open to general traffic. Each facility features one lane in each direction, lanes that were previously high-occupant vehicle lanes for carpools with two or more people. But we found that high-occupancy lanes were underutilized, so we now allow single-person vehicles to buy into the lanes. The price per highway section varies between $0.25 and $8.00, whatever keeps the average speed of the lane at 50-55 miles per hour or higher at all times. The average toll ranges from $1.25 to $1.50. Because it has free-flow conditions, a managed lane moves up to 50% more people during the peak hour than a general-purpose lane. Our buses have seen significant ridership increase following the implementation of MnPASS. And about 80% of the people using MnPASS are in carpools and buses. Only 20% of the people using MnPASS are single-occupant toll-payers.
Feigenbaum: The HOV to HOT conversion also provides benefits to transit riders. Can you describe these benefits?
Larsen: Buses that previously used the High-Occupancy-Vehicle (HOV) lanes will continue to have a dependable 50-55 mile per hour journey to downtown in the High-Occupancy-Toll (HOT) lanes. Converting the lanes from HOV to HOT offered other benefits to transit. For example, state law requires 50% of any revenue over and above operations and maintenance expenses to go to transit in the corridor. In addition, new station facilities and park-and-ride lots have been added to corridors.
The Twin Cities area also has a 300-mile network of bus-only shoulder lanes. These shoulders operate during rush hour periods. While bus shoulders increase transit ridership by providing our buses a reliable travel time, managed lanes provide an even quicker, safer and more reliable option for buses. Buses have a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour on bus only shoulders and have to slow down for merging traffic at every interchange.
Feigenbaum: Can you provide details on Active Traffic Management?
Larsen: We are also implementing Active Traffic Management (ATM) to help us maximize use of a highway’s performance. ATM technology manages traffic speed, flow and lane assignment based on traffic conditions and incidents in the corridor.
Feigenbaum: Enforcement issues, such as ensuring that only carpools and paying single-occupant vehicles use the lane, often arise in managed lanes. How do MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council reduce the violation rate?
Larsen: We set aside an amount of money to pay State Troopers to enforce the occupancy requirement on both I-394 and I-35W. While we do not have video enforcement, transponders are required to use the lane in single-occupant mode. Police officers are able to determine which vehicles have transponders in the single-occupant mode and then ensure vehicles in the carpool mode actually have two or more occupants. Violation rates range from 3% to 8% depending on the segment. We are always working to decrease the violation rate.
Feigenbaum: While many metro areas agree that managed lanes are good policy, tolled lanes and transit often face political challenges. How did MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council achieve citizen acceptance of the concept?
Larsen: One of the keys has been our education and outreach strategy. We stress return on investment. We explain how this solution is much cheaper than trying to continue to add general purpose lane capacity using traditional approaches. We highlight the $40 billion cost to address congestion with the traditional approach and the $1 billion of resources and contrast the costs of a managed lane system with the costs of the traditional expansion approach. We also discuss the ITS and technology benefits. As all of our HOV lanes were underused, it was easy to demonstrate how allowing toll-paying drivers to use the lanes would decrease congestion in the general-purpose lanes. For new construction, we need emphasize the choice corridor users have to use the general-purpose lanes, carpool, take transit, or pay a fee to use the managed lanes. Even if they do not choose to pay the fee, when other drivers switch to the managed lanes, congestion will decrease in the general-purpose lanes.
The State DOT and the Highway Patrol also operate a shared operations center. We have cameras across area highways to monitor traffic movement. We can dispatch emergency services for broken-down vehicles. Having eyes along the road allows us to make operational changes immediately after an incident, which helps us keep traffic flowing.
Feigenbaum: In some metro areas different transportation agencies battle over power. These political issues often delay worthwhile projects. How were the various Minnesota transportation agencies able to develop consensus on this plan?
Larsen: MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council have always had a good relationship. In 2008 both organizations came to the conclusion that operating the same old way was not sustainable. The Metropolitan Council was looking to increase transit ridership. At MnDOT, spending the vast majority of our funds on maintenance, safety and operation, we were concerned that the maintenance costs for additional lanes would leave us unable to improve highways in the future. Working with each other on the MHSIS Report allowed us to better understand each other’s needs. We saw that an improvement such as managed lanes was a cost-effective way to solve both MnDOT’s and the Metropolitan Council’s problems. This shared trust also increased political acceptance from both sides of the aisle.
Not everyone is happy with the new direction toward managed lanes, but a majority of the region’s stakeholders are on board with the concept.
Brad Larsen is the MnPASS Policy and Planning Manager. Previously he served as director of the Office of Traditional and Innovative Finance at MnDOT. Larsen has worked for MnDOT since 1996 in finance, policy and federal affairs. Before joining the department he spent several years practicing law. Larsen has a law degree and a Master’s in Public Administration from Hamline University.
Larsen is active in managed lane and pricing issues across the country. He has presented at several Transportation Research Board (TRB) events including the Multimodal Pricing Implementation Subcommittee and at the 2011 National Conference in D.C. Larsen has led both the managed lane and congestion pricing aspects in Minnesota.