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As traffic congestion grows, tension boils over at Capitol
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Transportation Commissioner and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau defended herself at a Senate committee hearing at which allegations were aired claiming transportation projects were selected based on politics. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Gov. Pawlenty has announced plans to allow solo drivers to pay a fee to use lanes reserved for car pools and buses on Interstate 394. Pawlenty says the toll lanes are one way to reduce traffic congestion. His administration is also planning to speed up construction of 12 major highway projects around the state. The selection of those projects came under scrutiny at a Senate committee hearing right after the governor's announcement. One key lawmaker even raised the possibility that the governor's transportation commissioner won't be confirmed.

St. Paul, Minn. — The 2003 Legislature passed a bill allowing MnDOT to charge a fee for using HOV lanes, which are reserved for buses and car pools. The Pawlenty administration plans to test the idea on Interstate 394 in the western suburbs. Drivers who want to use the "HOT lane" -- high occupancy toll -- would buy an electronic device for their cars. They would be automatically billed whenever they use the lane. The fee would be anywhere from 50 cents to $3 a trip, depending on traffic flow. Gov. Pawlenty says the HOV lanes are under utilized, and allowing solo commuters to pay to use them will help reduce increasing congestion.

"We are going to make progress, we are going to try to make it better than it would have been, but it is not a realistic expectation to say that we are going to solve congestion."

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Image Not a Molnau fan

Pawlenty says he's also working on a plan to build more lanes with toll fees. Details of the HOT plan are still being worked out, but MnDOT is negotiating with a private company to operate the toll lanes. MnDOT officials say the lanes should be operational by the end of next year.

Rep. Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior, says many of her constituents will pay to use the toll lanes, because they're fed up with congestion.

"I just have people tell me this is destroying their quality of life. They love living out in the west side, but when it all boils down to it, they're running out of time," she said.

Sykora says traffic jams in the western suburbs are finally getting some attention. She points to a plan to rebuild Interstate 494 between Eden Prairie and Minnetonka. That's one of the 12 projects MnDOT plans to accelerate, after the last Legislature approved borrowing money and getting an advance of federal money to pay for more than $800 million in projects.

As soon as the governor's HOT press conference wrapped up, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing on how the 12 projects were selected.

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Image Pawlenty airs his plan

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, says the biggest single project expands Highway 212 to four lanes in the southwestern suburbs.

"Not only did over one quarter of the transportation money go to one project, but over one half of the transportation money we passed last session went to the southwest metropolitan area," he said.

Chaudhary and other Democrats who serve on the committee say the southwestern suburbs were favored over needs in other parts of the state.

Transportation Commissioner and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who used to represent southwestern suburbs as a legislator, says the projects are equally divided between metro and rural needs. She says MnDOT staff recommended the list of projects based on criteria as reducing congestion and improving safety.

"This was not political in any way," she said. "And I've tried to get you to understand that when they brought those forth, the governor and I looked at them and didn't change one thing, we took their professional recommendation. And for someone to say that we've done this politically is very unfair."

But that's exactly the charge that the chair of the Transportation Committee is making. Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says the project selection was political, and MnDOT is more political under Molnau's watch than under previous administrations. He says enough legislators have raised concerns about MnDOT that Molnau may have trouble getting Senate confirmation to run the agency.

"We will give the commissioner the benefit of the doubt to come forward, state her case, present herself, but at this point in time there are members of the state Senate who are not willing upon the past performance to vote for her confirmation," Johnson said.

Molnau told the committee that she understands some of the disappointment over the project selection, because the package doesn't address all of the state's transportation needs. She says Minnesota is trying to catch up after 20 years of neglect. Sen. Johnson says the problem is that the Pawlenty administration is unwilling to put any new state money into transportation, so frustration over congestion will continue to grow.

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