Minneapolis Tries Charging for Faster Road Lanes The U.S. government wants the nation's cities to do more to end traffic gridlock. The Department of Transportation points to a successful experiment in Minneapolis, where some commuters can now pay a fee to drive in a free-moving lane.

Minneapolis Tries Charging for Faster Road Lanes

Minneapolis Tries Charging for Faster Road Lanes

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The U.S. government wants the nation's cities to do more to end traffic gridlock. The Department of Transportation points to a successful experiment in Minneapolis, where some commuters can now pay a fee to drive in a free-moving lane.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The U.S. government wants the nation's cities to do more to end traffic gridlock. The Department of Transportation points to successful experiments in cities like Minneapolis, where some commuters now have a choice. For a price, they can get all the way into town and back in a fraction of the time it used to take.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Minnesota traffic control specialist Dan Zinenko(ph) says there's no end to things that can snarl traffic - snow, ice, rain and today…

Mr. DAN ZINENKO (Traffic Control Specialist, Minnesota): Well, we had a report of a moose on the loose, up in the Crosstown area.

SCHALCH: But here, as elsewhere, half of all congestion isn't due to woodland creatures or accidents. It's because there are too many cars on the road.

John Doan with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Mr. JOHN DOAN (Director, Minnesota MnPass Program): It's like a tipping point. You know, when you add that next vehicle in there, the whole system starts to degrade very quickly.

SCHALCH: Economists say the problem is that when you give away a public good for free, say road space during rush hour, people will use it up. One remedy is to start charging for it. The MnPass Program, which Doan directs demonstrates how this concept, known as congestion pricing, works.

Since it started over a year ago, Herb Cohen(ph) and more than 10,000 other Minneapolis area commuters have signed up.

Mr. HERB COHEN (Commuter): I love it. I've become addicted to it.

SCHALCH: Everyday, Cohen activates a little plastic transponder dangling in his windshield.

Mr. CONE: You'll appear at the moment now.

SCHALCH: The transponder knows that Cohen had crossed into the center lane of Route 394, a major highway that links Minneapolis with its western suburbs. The other lanes are free, but to ride in this one, Cohen has to pay.

Mr. COHEN: This trip will cost me $5 - all the way into downtown Minneapolis. So to me, this is a deal.

SCHALCH: A deal because of what's going on in the free lane.

Mr. COHEN: The two lanes to our right are pretty much on a standstill.

SCHALCH: Cohen's speedometer reads 58. Ten minutes is all it takes to get downtown.

Mr. COHEN: I would estimate that today - it's taking me half hour for a one way-commute.

SCHALCH: The price can rise and fall, minute by minute from 25 cents all the way up to $8, depending on how many cars are already on the lane. Loop detectors, little wires embedded in the pavement count the cars. That information is sent to a computer at MnPass headquarters. MnPass spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.

Mr. KEVIN GUTKNECHT (Spokesman, MnPass): The computer knows that we want to maintain a certain level of speed, that's the first priority. So what it does is it increases the price of the toll as the number of cars increase, because what we're trying to do is get people to decide, well, maybe I don't want to pay to use the lane today because I don't need to.

SCHALCH: The flexible pricing has kept traffic moving at least 50 miles per hour continuously, even though more and more commuters are signing up. Results like these make transportation experts like Doan practically giddy.

Mr. DOANS: This is just the beginning. We are, I think, at the cost of seeing more of this throughout the country and perhaps, even throughout the world.

SCHALCH: The U.S. Department of Transportation would certainly like to think so. It's just announced the program that would help cities replicate the Minneapolis experiment on a much grander scale. DOT is offering grants, loans and help cutting red tape.

Assistant secretary for Transportation Policy, Tyler Duvall, citywide congestion-pricing experiments in London and Stockholm have managed to tame gridlock, curb air pollution and really improve people's quality of life.

Mr. TYLER DUVALL (Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy): The United Kingdom has just done a major national road pricing study. They found basically 48 percent reductions in traffic could produce congestion reduction of 50 percent.

SCHALCH: DOT has been pushing this concept for a while.

Mr. DUVALL: There's no city right now that has said, we're going to do it.

SCHALCH: Traffic may have to get a whole lot worse before politicians warmed to that idea.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): Do we have a congestion problem? Absolutely. Is it expensive? Yes.

SCHALCH: But even New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg says charging commuters to drive into town like London does is a political non-starter.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: We would never get it passed.

SCHALCH: No one relishes asking voters to start paying to drive where they now drive for free. You can get around that problem as Minneapolis did by opening up HOB lanes that were previously off limits, and allowing carpoolers to keep using them for free, or you can build new lanes.

In the past year Denver and Salt Lake City have created this shared high occupancy toll lanes, known as HOT lanes. Seattle is now building them and Maryland and Virginia planned to add them to the capital's famously congested beltway.

A dozen other cities are considering putting in HOT lanes and traffic experts expect most large metropolitan areas will have them on at least some of their highways within the next two decades.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News.

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