2  Operate the regional transportation system efficiently and cost-effectively

Operate the regional transportation system to efficiently and cost-effectively connect people and freight to destinations.

2.1 E-ZPass Lanes

The E-ZPass (formerly MnPASS) system is a series of express lanes (also known as high occupancy toll lanes) located on select freeway facilities within the metro region. During peak hours, these lanes are dedicated to and free for high-occupancy vehicles (vehicles carrying more than one person) and open to single occupant vehicles for a fee. Approximately 80% of people using E-ZPass lanes are carpooling or riding in a bus during peak conditions. On off-peak hours and weekends, these lanes are free and open to all vehicles (MnDOT 2023).

E-ZPass lanes work to improve the efficiency of freeways during the busiest commuting times, prioritizing transit ridership and carpooling. While single occupant vehicles represent 22% of the total vehicles using the lanes, they move only 12% of the people. The system operates effectively, with vehicles travelling at speeds above 45 miles per hour about 98% of the time (MnDOT 2023).

Figure 2.1 displays the average number of people in E-ZPass lanes during the morning and evening rush hours.

Figure 2.1: Average daily number of people in E-ZPass lanes

2.2 Public Transit

2.2.1 Transit trips

Unlinked passenger trips are the number times of passengers board public transportation vehicles. Passengers are counted each time they board vehicles no matter how many vehicles they use to travel from their origin to their destination.

Recent trends in transit ridership are defined by the significant decline in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As overall travel demand fell, transit ridership fell as well. Between 2019 and 2021 transit ridership in the metro region dropped by 58% from 87 million trips in 2019 to 37 million trips in 2021. As can be seen when comparing the Twin Cities with our peer regions, this significant decline in transit ridership affected transit systems throughout the country.

Declines in transit ridership were similar among fixed-route modes; between 2019 and 2021 bus ridership declined 59% from 59 million in 2019 to 24 million in 2021, while during the same period light rail ridership declined 58% from 25 million in 2019 to 11 million in 2021. Decline in dial-a-ride service, primarily Metro Mobility, were less pronounced with ridership declining 24% between 2019 and 2021. Dial-a-ride service, unlinked bus, and rail service, saw an increase in ridership between 2020 and 2021.

Figure 2.2: Passengers by region and mode

2.2.2 Productivity

The productivity of a transit service is defined as the number of trips that it serves per revenue hour. Revenue hours are the hours that vehicles are scheduled to or actually travel while in revenue service. Vehicle revenue hours include layover and recovery time, but exclude deadhead trips, like travel to garages or changing routes, training, vehicle maintenance training, and other non-revenue use of vehicles.

The major decline in ridership triggered a corresponding major decline in transit productivity. Since transit service providers responded to the decline in ridership with service cuts, the rate at which productivity declined was slightly less than the rate at which ridership declined.

Bus productivity dropped 53% between 2019 and 2021 from 20.9 trips per revenue hour to 9.9 trips per revenue hour; rail productivity dropped 52% during the same period from 171.8 trips per revenue hour to 83.3 trips per revenue hour; dial-a-ride remained the least productive service with productivity declining 22% between 2019 and 2021 from 1.8 trips per revenue hour to 1.4 trips per revenue hour.

Figure 2.3: Passengers per revenue hour by region and mode

2.2.3 Fare recovery

Farebox recovery is the proportion of total revenue from fares paid by passengers divided by the total operating expenses. A fare recovery ratio of 100% indicates that all operating expenses are covered by fare revenue. A ratio of less than one indicates that operating costs exceed passenger fares.

As with all the Twin Cities’ peer regions, fare recovery suffered from the collapse of ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 2019 and 2021, overall fare recovery fell 67% from 21% of operating expenses being covered by fare revenues in 2019 to only 7% in 2021.

Figure 2.4: Fare recovery rates by region and mode

2.2.4 Subsidy per passenger

Transit subsidy per passenger is the total operating expenses, less the total revenue from passenger fare, divided by the total number of unlinked trips. This can be interpreted as the cost incurred for each trip provided on transit. As ridership declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsidy per passenger also rose. Overall, the subsidy provided per trip between 2019 and 2021 rose from $5.19 per trip to $14.21 per trip.

Subsidies were lowest for rail trips at $7.34 per trip in 2021, they were highest for dial-a-ride trips at $42.31 per trip in 2021 Subsides for bus trips were $14.84 in 2021

Figure 2.5: Subsidy per passenger by region and mode

2.3 Spare freeway capacity

Before COVID-19 impacts on travel in 2020, MnDOT reported that during a typical peak period, up to 24% of Twin Cities freeways saw some congestion (MnDOT 2022). This complementary analysis1 shows that during a typical afternoon peak hour that, even while part of the freeway system was congested, other parts of the freeways saw 15% less traffic than their overall capacity could accommodate. This figure rose to 20% in 2020, but has most recently returned to 15% in 2022.

In contrast, the average daytime spare capacity 2019 was 27%. This rose to 37% in 2020 and returned to 30% in 2022.

While congested roads receive a lot of attention, there is unused capacity on Twin Cities freeways that will help accommodate future population growth and economic development. There are opportunities to lessen the costs of congestion by moving trips to different times and places.

Figure 2.6: Percent spare capacity of Twin Cities freeway system during the most congested hour

  1. MnDOT continuously collects vehicle counts on most freeways in the Twin Cities at locations usually between 1/2 and 1 mile apart. For each year, we pulled loop detector data for all freeway stations in the MPO area on weekdays (Monday through Thursday) in October. We then calculated the average hourly speed, total number of vehicles that passed through the detector node during that hour (vehicle flow), and vehicle density (number of vehicles per mile) during the most congested hour (4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.) at each detector node. We calculated spare capacity using MnDOT’s traffic data extract formulas. If flow exceeds 1,800 vehicles per hour, the node is considered well performing. If flow is under 1,800 vehicles per hour and vehicle density is greater than 43 vehicles per mile, the node is at lost capacity; there is more traffic than the road can accommodate at free-flow speed. If the flow is under 1,800 vehicles per hour and vehicle density is less than 43 vehicles per mile, the node has spare capacity; there is less traffic than the road is built to handle.

    The daytime average is the percentage of all hours and nodes that operate at spare capacity, starting at 7:00 a.m. and ending at 7:00 p.m.↩︎