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New 35W features opening to relieve congestion

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MnPass or congestion pricing lane
The MnPass or congestion pricing lane on the left will be available at no cost to buses, car pools and to single driver vehicles willing to pay as little as 25 cents or up to $8 a trip depending on traffic levels as traffic managers adjust the price in order to keep the lane flowing at 50 miles per hour.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

This week, some elements of the huge makeover of I-35W through the Twin Cities, the state's busiest highway, will open to bus riders and drivers even while many portions of the project are still a work in progress.

Beginning Monday morning, there's a new southern suburbs express bus service, and then Wednesday at 6 a.m. 35W drivers coming from the south will have their own MnPass or high-speed commuter lane. 

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said beginning on Monday morning, commuters from Lakeville can pay $3 one way or $6 round trip for a new bus service from a new park and ride ramp to downtown Minneapolis.

"Trip time will be about half an hour. We'll offer six trips in the morning and six trips home in the afternoon," Gibbons said.

Gibbons said the new $500,000 buses are over-the-road coaches with high backed seats.

The buses will glide along in their own 35W lane usually no slower than 50 mph.

Minnesota Department of Transportation project leader Nick Thompson said the buses will share the fast lane with carpoolers and with individual car drivers willing to pay for the privilege through the 35W MnPass program.

"[If] they need to get somewhere in a hurry, they can pay to use the MnPass lane," Thompson said.  "That has been available to car pool and transit since the mid 1980s on 35W, but now for the first time available for solo drivers too."

Installing express bus lane
Here at 46th Street and 35W in south Minneapolis looking south, workers are putting in the express bus lane for a version of bus rapid transit that includes a still to built station for buses stopping on 46th to allow passengers to descend to the freeway level and board an express bus to downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Thompson said more than a thousand 35W commuters are already enrolled. 

Any time they use the MnPass lane, a transponder attached to their windshield fires off the information to the processing center, a company hired by MnDot to handle billing.

The concept is called congestion pricing.

MnPass users will pay as little as 25 cents per trip when traffic is light or as much as $8 during rush hours when it's heavy. Thompson said prices rise with traffic volumes to keep the MnPass lane users motoring along at a minimum of 50 mph.

More electronic signs also dot 35W, telling drivers of congestion or problems ahead, Thompson said.

Kenrich Avenue park & ride
Workers unload a truckload of mulch for landscaping around the new Kenrich Avenue park and ride in Lakeville, a component of the transit investment part of the Urban Partnership Agreement.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"We'll warn you in advance with advisory speeds that you should reduce your speed [to]," he said.

Traffic experts say crashes are the cause of nearly half of roadway congestion, so crash avoidance pays off in reducing congestion.

There's still more. 

MnDOT is encouraging companies to allow workers who use 35W to work from home one day a week--a concept they call telecommuting.

Express bus, MnPass, managed lanes and telecommuting are features of the 35W makeover that start this week, a makeover with a price tag of about $183 million.

Most of it is federal dollars but just over a quarter of is coming from the state.

The Crosstown interchange in south Minneapolis, a $300 million project, wraps up next year as well.

Still to come on 35W is bus rapid transit. That's where express buses have their own lane down the middle of the freeway and a collection of stations.

Some of the money for bus rapid transit is already in place and will go to build the first station at 46th Street in south Minneapolis over the freeway.

City bus riders will get off at 46th, walk down to the middle of the freeway and board an express bus.

Double-wide bus lanes
The double-wide bus lanes still being finished on Marquette and on 2nd Avenues in downtown Minneapolis are part of the Urban Partnership Agreement bringing $133 million in federal dollars to Minnesota matched by $33 million state dollars.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis helped craft the application for the federal grant, said more money must be found for bus rapid transit.

"That infrastructure is not included and will have to be developed and funded separately, that's an example of how this is going to be an ongoing process," Hornstein said.

The 35W makeover is a departure from the old days of freeway building. When the roadway was built in the 1950s, the goal was to move as much traffic, mostly cars, as fast as possible.

That's still a goal, but now officials want 35W users to have options, including transit that will help relieve one of the roadway's most persistent problems -- congestion.