Minnesota HOV Lane Restrictions

HOV lane entrance overhead road sign.
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Like most states, Minnesota tries to encourage drivers to share vehicles with others, rather than crowding the interstate with cars carrying only one person.

Car sharing makes sense both financially for the drivers and for the planet. That is the reason for MnPASS Express Lanes/E-ZPass Lanes, also known as High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. However, not any driver can use them. Use of these lanes is restricted, and violations can be expensive in Minnesota.

Too Many Cars Cause Problems

People who live in New York City or the greater Los Angeles area may think that they are the only ones in the nation to understand commute-hour highway gridlock. But most urban areas share this problem. Everyone has become accustomed to driving their own vehicle to work.

This creates issues both for the commute and for the environment. As the population rises, the interstates fill up with cars containing only one driver, no passengers. This means that to keep traffic flowing, the state has to either construct new highways on a regular basis or persuade drivers to share their vehicles.

The impact on the environment of all these fossil-fuel burning vehicles cannot be overstated. The primary cause of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the burning of fossil fuels, and the main culprit is gas or diesel burning cars.

Governmental Remedies Like HOV Lanes

One government strategy to keep traffic moving efficiently is to implement high occupancy vehicle lanes, or HOV lanes. These are particular lanes that can be used only by vehicles with a minimum number of occupants or by larger vehicles like buses. This is an idea that began in the 1970s, fueled by the support of several federal programs. For example:

  • In the 1970s, the Federal Highway Administration began to permit state transportation agencies to spend federal funds on HOV lanes. By 1990, it issued a policy statement supporting HOV lane development.
  • In 1990, certain amendments to the Clean Air Act authorized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to restrict HOV lane funds to those states federally mandated to reduce air pollution. It also permitted these states to include HOV lanes in their implementation plans.
  • Soon after, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act opened up the use of Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality funds to develop new HOV lanes with the federal government matching funds.
  • In 2005, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act allowed the EPA to define single occupant low emission and energy-efficient vehicles permitted to use HOV lanes.
  • The FAST Act allowed states to offer HOV access for low emission and energy-efficient vehicles if the vehicles pay a toll.

Minnesota's MNPass Express Lanes

In Minnesota, HOV, or carpool lanes, were introduced in May, 2005, as MnPASS Express Lanes. They were initially available on congested areas of I-35W, I-35E and I-394, but the program has been slowly expanded. The state also installed HOV Bypass Lanes near Park and Ride lots for public transportation.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation issues regulations governing use of these lanes. It limits use of MnPASS Express Lanes to vehicles with two or more people (children included), buses and motorcycles. This applies during busy weekday commuting hours, from 6a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and usually only in one direction. Outside of these hours, these lanes are open to all traffic.

Minnesota's E-Z Pass Lanes

In 2021, MnPass was melded into a new program called E-ZPass. This program extended the use of the pass to 19 states across the Midwest and East Coast. This permits Minnesotans to use interstate express lanes and toll roads. At that point, the name of the lane was changed to E-ZPass lanes and new regulations were established to allow solo drivers to use the roads for a fee.

During peak weekday hours, Minnesota E-ZPass lanes remain free for buses, motorcycles and vehicles with two or more people including children and infants (HOV 2+).

However, solo drivers who start an E-ZPass account and purchase an E-ZPass tag (an electronic device or transponder that goes on the dash) can also use the roads, but they are charged a fee for doing so. These solo drivers are not allowed to use the HOV Bypass Lanes.

MnPass Tags for Those Who Sometimes Carry Passengers

Those Minnesota motorists who sometimes have passengers can obtain E-ZPass tags. If they drive alone, they are charged. If they drive with passengers, they put their transponders into HOV 2+ mode to avoid being charged.

Commercial Vehicles on Minnesota HOV Lanes

Since the idea of the HOV Lanes was to make the commute drive easier for Minnesota residents, the state does not encourage commercial vehicles from using these lanes or the HOV Bypass lanes during peak traffic hours. To that end, the Department of Transportation will not issue E-ZPasses or MnPASS transponders to commercial vehicles that have three or more axles and weigh more than 26,000 pounds.

However, under Minnesota law, all vehicles with at least two occupants in the vehicle have the right to use these lanes. Therefore, commercial vehicles have the right to use these lanes if at least two occupants are in the vehicle. And during non-peak hours, commercial drivers can use HOV lanes like other drivers. A driver can tell because the overhead sign says, “open to all traffic,” when the lanes are free for all drivers.

Minnesota HOV Law Enforcement

Use of the passes is enforced by state patrol. The state of Minnesota employs several full-time troopers who focus solely on enforcing HOV pass rules, keeping an eye out for vehicles with only one person in them. When they see a solo driver, they scan the car for working passes, transponders or tags.

During peak traffic hours, the state assigns at least one trooper to cover every HOV lane. This presence is increased at least once a week to catch offenders. When a violation is suspected, the state troopers stop the car and take a look. Violators can be given warnings or actual tickets, which can run in the hundreds of dollars depending on the county.