ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

Minnesota considers building toll roads

By Laurie Blake
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Minnesota is ready to entertain proposals for privately financed road construction paid by driver tolls, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Monday.

What the tolls would cost, how many years they would be collected and how much profit the builders would make would be negotiated later.

Early next month, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and private road builders will start talking about how to take the state into a new era of toll-paid lane additions in the Twin Cities metro area.

Promoted by the Pawlenty administration as a choice -- not a tax -- the tolls would be optional for drivers.

The choice would take the state into new territory: premium government service, available for a fee.

Pawlenty said Monday that allowing private builders to finance road construction with the promise of a profit paid in tolls is the quickest way to add lanes to ease increasing traffic congestion.

"The state of Minnesota is about 20 years behind on our transportation infrastructure," he said. Toll-financed construction is working in other states and, "the time has come to bring the concept to Minnesota."

Pawlenty was joined by U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn.; Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell, and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau. The state can pursue toll lanes without legislative approval on state highways. Kennedy is pursuing legislation in Congress that would permit the use of toll lanes on federal interstates. Pawlenty and Molnau are asking for proposals on interstates as well, believing congressional approval will not be an obstacle.

"Traffic congestion is the region's Number One livability issue," Bell said. Toll lanes, which can also be used for high-speed bus service, are a good place to start addressing the problem, he said.

DFL legislative leaders said they are still awaiting a transportation plan from Pawlenty.

"The Pawlenty administration is not meeting the issue head on," said Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar. "We need more revenue for investment in roads and bridges and transit. This proposal will give another alternative, but it's only a drop in the bucket of what is really needed in a state that is growing in population, growing in traffic and growing in commerce."

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, also noted that it's unclear from the information that Pawlenty has provided whether people will pay more or less for privately built roads.

Not needing the approval of legislators, Molnau, who is also the state's transportation commissioner, released a list of highways where MnDOT will consider toll-paid lane additions. The routes are all high-volume highways where drivers might be willing to pay a toll to get into new congestion-free lanes, she said.

Molnau expects private firms to study the map and come forward with ideas and questions. Then a more formal bidding process would begin, in which companies may compete with one another. Having never done this before, MnDOT does not have specific criteria, but it will be looking for projects that would widen significant segments of the freeway system within a reasonable time frame and at a reasonable cost, she said.

The earliest a toll project could get underway is two years, she said. Several years of construction would follow.

Earlier this year, the Pawlenty administration started pursuing plans to let solo drivers pay a toll for a congestion-free trip on the existing Interstate Hwy. 394 carpool-bus lane beginning next December.

The concept announced Monday would use tolls to pay for new lanes. When the lanes are paid for, the toll would end.

Pawlenty has turned to tolls to increase spending on road construction without raising the state's 20-cent gas tax.

He said he prefers tolls to a tax increase because tolls are targeted at users who benefit.

With the conversion to hybrid cars that use less gasoline, it's not wise for the state to hang its hat solely on the gas tax for the future, he said.

In Chicago-style freeway tolls, drivers must stop and pay at a booth. The Pawlenty administration, though, endorses a type of electronic collection system that keeps drivers moving. In those systems, users deposit money into an account and place an electronic device on their dashboard that can be read by an overhead machine. Each time they enter the lane, the toll is deducted.

To date, all of Pawlenty's transportation announcements have focused on roads. On Monday, he said transit initiatives are coming soon.