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Twin Cities Ahead of Curve in Managing Congestion

August 09, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow Conrad deFiebre
Maybe a thriving metropolis can't build its way out of traffic congestion, but there's growing evidence that it can manage its way out. And the Twin Cities are becoming a national model for how to do it.

In a coordinated multi-agency effort stretching from park-and-ride lots in the distant suburbs to reconfigured bus routes in downtown Minneapolis with lots of innovation in between, Minnesotans are showing there's more than one way to speed up glacial rush-hour commutes. Until now, about the only sure-fire route to freer-flowing traffic was a nasty economic recession, which was no solution at all.

But the Minnesota approach is drawing praise from the national experts at the Texas Transportation Institute, which has tracked congestion across the country since 1982. Along with Seattle, the institute's Tim Lomax told USA Today last month, the Twin Cities "are at the forefront of what's going on ... They are not only thought leaders, but action leaders."

For example:

  • Twin Cities freeways have nearly 300 miles of bus-only shoulder lanes, more than the rest of the nation combined. This "transit advantage," initiated in 1992, allows buses to bypass stalled traffic, making them more attractive than driving for many commuters and reducing the number of vehicles clogging the road.
  • Another transit advantage being introduced on a few routes in Minneapolis and St. Paul is traffic signal controls for bus drivers running behind schedule. Metro Transit says this tool has produced a 15 percent time savings for transit riders.
  • Metro freeways pioneered entrance ramp meters, which showed their utility when gridlock followed an experimental meter shutdown dictated by conservative legislators.
  • Interstate Hwy. 394 was among the first in the nation to establish a High Occupancy Toll (HOT) system, which allows solo motorists, for a price collected electronically, to use express lanes formerly restricted to car pools, transit and motorcycles. The 5-year-old project has sped up traffic in both the tolled and free lanes, winning support from drivers in all income classes. Now the HOT system has been extended to I-35W with similar strong results - 10 to 15 minutes off average trips, free flow in the priced lanes 99 percent of the time -- and the Minnesota Department of Transportation is looking for ways to bring it to other crowded corridors.
  • Last year, Metro Transit, the city of Minneapolis and federal funders collaborated on a project to concentrate all 78 express bus routes on dedicated two-lane portions of Marquette and 2nd Avenues S. downtown. This allows buses to pass each other in what Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons calls "a ballet of buses weaving in and out." It has increased express bus speeds in the downtown zone by 60 percent, he said.
  • The latest improvements, launched last month, are advisory speed limits and other information on 170 electronic signs over 35W from Burnsville to I-494. The first-in-the-nation "Smart Lanes" system manages access to toll lanes, directs traffic away from crashes and responds to weather and road conditions by recommending slower travel. The advisory limits don't carry the force of law, but "in a peak period you only need a small percentage of cars to comply with it," said MnDOT's Nick Thompson. "Then the whole system starts to operate at that speed (as little as 30 miles per hour)." The signs are similar to those in operation for years at the Lowry Hill tunnel on I-94. More Smart Lanes will open into downtown Minneapolis this fall and along I-94 in Minneapolis and St. Paul next year.

Best of all, these innovative strategies attack congestion at a fraction of the cost of the standard, largely futile, method: laying more concrete. Much of the alternative work, including new park-and-rides and bus rapid transit facilities on 35W and Cedar Avenue from Lakeville to the Mall of America, has been done for a total of $183 million in state and federal money.

To be sure, eliminating freeway bottlenecks such as the Crosstown Commons, the 35E-694 Weave and the narrow old Wakota Bridge are a needed strategy as well. But these jobs run up to $300 million apiece, totaling the cost of a major light-rail line for a few miles of new pavement.

TTI's Lomax said "low-dollar kinds of treatments" like Minnesota's are the result of government creativity in the face of crushing congestion and funding challenges. They also depend upon strong collaboration among many levels of government that isn't generally the rule elsewhere.

"Sustained partnership doesn't really exist in a lot of places," Lomax said. "But your systematic approach is something a lot of places could learn from."


photo credit: Dan Hendricks, creative commons
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