By Laurie Blake
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Minnesota is ready to entertain proposals for privately financed
road construction paid by driver tolls, Gov. Tim Pawlenty
What the tolls would cost, how many years they would be collected
and how much profit the builders would make would be negotiated
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
"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,
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