Toll Insight spoke with Brian Kary, Director of Traffic Operations for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
1. Please tell us about yourself, your career and your work at Minnesota DOT.
My career started with MnDOT in 1999 as a student worker at our original Traffic Management Center (TMC). A year later, I graduated from the University of Minnesota and started full-time with MnDOT. My experience working at the TMC fueled a passion for traffic operations and Intelligent Transportation Systems. Twenty years later, I'm still focused on traffic operations and began working with our tolling system about 10 years ago. I love my job as it’s constantly changing as the technology changes, and what we do has a direct benefit to the traveling public.
2. How did the history of tolling in Minnesota evolve, especially with the focus on Express Lanes?
MnDOT's first Express Lane opened on I-394 in 2005 with the brand name of MnPASS. The project was the first of its kind in Minnesota and was a new and significant change in highway traffic management. The new MnPASS Express Lane system converted High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. The goal was to maximize capacity on I-394 and to make better use of an existing HOV lane.
Since the opening of I-394, MnDOT expanded the MnPASS express lanes to I-35W south of Minneapolis in 2009-2011, I-35E north of St. Paul in 2015-2016, and the most recent corridor of I-35W north of Minneapolis in August 2021. In addition to opening the fourth Express Lane, we also joined E-ZPASS in 2020, and on August 2, 2021, we officially rebranded the MnPASS Express Lanes as E-ZPASS and became interoperable with the E-ZPASS system.
3. Please tell us more about the process to make becoming part of E-ZPASS a reality.
Becoming a part of E-ZPASS has been about seven years in the making. Minnesota is a bit on an island when it comes to proximity with other toll facilities. The closest toll lanes are in the Chicago metro area, which is about 350 miles away. Although we had received some customer inquires regarding the potential for interoperability with the Chicago metro area, it wasn’t until the MAP-21 requirement for interoperability that we began to seriously look at this issue.
Starting in 2014, we began to explore the different options of becoming interoperable with other tolling systems. In addition to looking at E-ZPASS, we also looked at the Central Interoperability Hub, due to the Interstate 35 corridor, but joining E-ZPASS made the most sense to MnDOT because of the proximity to Chicago.
In 2015, our toll readers were upgraded to devices that were multi-protocol to prepare ourselves for interoperability. At that same time, we transitioned from TDA protocol tags to SeGo protocol transponders. The multi-protocol readers read both TDA and SeGo until we were able to complete the transition to SeGo. Once the TDA tags were no longer on the road, we reprogrammed the multi-protocol readers to read both SeGo and IAG protocols in preparation for joining E-ZPASS.
With the change to E-ZPASS, we started issuing a new multi-protocol transponder that provides both the SeGo and IAG protocols. Existing customers are still using the single-protocol SeGo transponders but can ask to be upgraded to the new multi-protocol version if they plan on using their account outside of Minnesota. New customers are now always given the multi-protocol tag.
4. More generally, what have been some of the biggest challenges related to your Express Lanes and how have you worked to resolve them?
The most significant concern raised by account holders has been illegal lane use and the lack of sufficient enforcement. MnDOT is continuing to add Express Lane enforcement, utilizing a dedicated team of troopers from the Minnesota State Patrol. We’ve also deployed enforcement beacons that help the state troopers determine if there is a valid transponder in the vehicle and have explored infrared camera technology that can help determine vehicle occupancy. Additional enforcement and new technology can help improve enforcement; however, violation rates will continue to pose a challenge until fully automated license plate tolling and occupancy verification systems can be implemented.
Public support for new Express Lanes is always a challenge as we study new corridors for expansion of the system. As our system grows and we continue our outreach activities, support for MnPASS continues to grow. Various surveys poll the public regarding their awareness of and opinions regarding MnPASS Express Lanes as an effective traffic management tool for the Twin Cities. A perception tracking study conducted by MnDOT found that public support for MnPASS has increased by 30 percent over six years going from a 41 percent approval rating in 2012 to 70 percent in 2018.
5. What do you see as the challenges and opportunities for MnDOT and the tolling industry overall in the next 3-5 years?
For MnDOT, exploring new enforcement technologies such as infrared camera systems and occupancy detection smartphone applications will continue to be of interest. Challenges we see with any of these technologies is the dependability of the technology but also the public acceptance. For example, Minnesota has not been successful in deploying camera technologies for other traffic enforcement issues like red-light running and speed enforcement.
We are also planning to explore automated tolling with license plate readers. In addition to the public acceptance challenges around the use of cameras for tolling purposes, MnDOT would have to require carpool vehicles registration for toll-free use. License plate readers would also increase our operating costs with additional hardware in the field and processing of trips within our back-office system. We would need to weigh these issues with the benefits of potentially having reduced violation rates.
Looking ahead from there, the integration of Connected and Automated Vehicles (CAVs) into our Express Lanes will be a challenge, as we need to understand the ramifications on our operations —including for the cases of HOV users, transit, and motorcycles. Allowing CAVs into the Express Lanes without excluding one of the other current user groups could create too much demand for the lanes and lead to congestion in the Express Lanes.