Paying for the Fast Lane in Minneapolis

This week Minneapolis begins fighting traffic congestion by letting solo drivers pay a premium to use lanes that have been reserved for carpooling. Some say this allows the rich to buy their way out of traffic jams and defeats efforts to reduce pollution.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Here's news for those of you stuck in traffic if you live in Minneapolis. This week, lanes once reserved for buses, carpoolers and motorcycles, known as HOV lanes, opened to solo drivers who pay a toll. These so-called HOT lanes also are being tried or planned in other cities, though critics say the lanes won't reduce congestion all that much. NPR's David Schaper reports.

(Soundbite of zipper)

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

Julie Huerta is packing up her things at the end of her workday.

Ms. JULIE HUERTA (Commuter): It's always my goal to get on the road by four. I don't always hit it, but...

SCHAPER: The pediatric nurse practitioner needs to pick up her kids from after-school care by five.

Ms. HUERTA: Hey, guys, thanks. See you Thursday.

Unidentified Child: Bye-bye.

SCHAPER: She gets into her minivan...

(Soundbite of van engine starting)

SCHAPER: ...and starts her 22-mile commute to Minnetonka. And about halfway through it, this is what she'll face.

It's the height of the evening rush here on Interstate 394 just west of downtown Minneapolis. It's raining. I'm in the two right lanes, and traffic is just crawling about 10, 15, maybe speeding up to 20 or 25 miles an hour at times. But traffic in the far two left lanes is cruising along at 50 to 55 miles an hour. Those are the carpoolers, the buses and, starting this week, solo drivers who are willing to pay a toll--right now, it's $1.75--for the privilege of bypassing the congestion.

Standing in a parking lot just off the Interstate, Kevin Gutknecht, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, explains how the system works.

Mr. KEVIN GUTKNECHT (Minnesota Department of Transportation): What it is is a totally electronic toll system on a former high-occupancy vehicle lane. It is now a high-occupancy toll lane.

SCHAPER: Gutknecht says drivers who set up accounts are given transponders that are mounted on the inside of their windshields, and tolls will be deducted electronically. The cost will vary based on the level of congestion from a low of 25 to 50 cents to a high of $8, though he anticipates it will usually range from 1 to $4 during the rush hours. He says the goal is to speed some traffic along.

Mr. GUTKNECHT: I like to describe it as what we're doing is we're offering individual drivers a way to manage the congestion for themselves.

SCHAPER: That suits commuters like Julie Huerta well, who says carpooling and mass transit aren't realistic options for her because she drops off and picks up her kids on the way to and from work, and because she can sometimes be delayed while seeing patients. She says it might be worth a couple of bucks to shave 15, 20 or 30 minutes off her commute time.

Ms. HUERTA: More time with my family, more time to myself. You know, that's well worth it.

SCHAPER: But not all commuters agree.

Dr. PAUL QUEBICK(ph) (Commuter) I think the moniker Lexus lane applies very well.

SCHAPER: Huerta's colleague, physician Paul Quebick, says he car-pools with his wife, who's also a physician. He says from what he's seen in the first few days, those paying tolls to use the express lanes tend to be driving bigger, more expensive cars. That leads him to believe HOT lanes are little more than special traffic-jam bypasses for the affluent that will have little impact on congestion.

Dr. QUEBICK: Every time we do something like this, we deflect from the goal that should be larger, more economical means of mass transportation that don't include the automobile.

SCHAPER: Studies of similar HOT lanes already in place in San Diego and near Los Angeles suggest they are used by people of all income levels and are more likely to be used by women. Transportation planners say HOT lanes can make better use of existing highway capacity, especially where HOV lanes are underutilized. But they also agree since, they don't add capacity or reduce the number of cars on the road, HOT lanes won't have a big impact on reducing congestion. Nonetheless, HOT lanes are being planned or considered in and around Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Washington, DC. David Schaper, NPR News.

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