ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Rip out I-94 and start again? As MnDOT preps ‘Rethinking I-94’ options, a once-radical idea gains fans

With the Minnesota Department of Transportation scheduled to release a slate of highway rebuilding options for the long-awaited “Rethinking I-94” project this summer, Our Streets Minneapolis is urging state leaders to cancel a long stretch of Twin Cities freeway entirely and revive communities bisected by construction of Interstate 94 in the 1960s.

i94030422.PNG
Looking west from the Dale Street overpass over Interstate 94, eastbound traffic into St. Paul backs up at rush hour in 2015.
St. Paul Pioneer Press file photo
We are part of The Trust Project.

ST. PAUL -- When San Francisco’s double-decker Embarcadero freeway was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1989, the city chose to rip it out entirely. Today, a popular business corridor lined with waterfront restaurants and scenic piers like Fisherman’s Wharf hugs the city’s eastern coastline, drawing foot traffic, a streetcar line and tourism dollars instead of traffic congestion.

From Milwaukee to Chattanooga, at least 30 cities tired of poorly-planned, badly-aging highways routing trucks and cars through their municipal boundaries have simply shut down major stretches of their 1960s-era freeways. They’ve rejected adding new travel lanes, which often simply attract more drivers, and opted instead to replace wide highways with cleaner travel options like bike-friendly linear parks.

“There has never been a highway-to-boulevard conversion project that has not been successful,” said Alex Burns, transportation policy coordinator for Our Streets Minneapolis, a nonprofit that advocates for city policies that promote biking, walking and rolling.

It may sound tantamount to heresy to many commuters, but Burns is hoping to bring similar energy to the Twin Cities’ busiest highway corridor.

‘Re-thinking I-94’

With the Minnesota Department of Transportation scheduled to release a slate of highway rebuilding options for the long-awaited “Rethinking I-94” project this summer, Our Streets Minneapolis is urging state leaders to cancel a long stretch of Twin Cities freeway entirely and revive communities bisected by construction of Interstate 94 in the 1960s.

ADVERTISEMENT

This past Saturday, with health and income disparities for freeway-area residents in mind, members of the nonprofit advocacy organization began door knocking and phone banking in the neighborhoods that sit along seven miles of the I-94 corridor between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

Instead of the existing highway trench, Our Streets is urging MnDOT to reconnect the street grid at street level with a “multi-modal” boulevard geared toward pedestrians, cyclists and public transit as much, if not more so, than trucks and cars.

As many as 167,000 vehicles travel peak sections of the seven-mile corridor per day, with limited job benefits for the residents — roughly half of them people of color — who live around the highway, according to Our Streets.

Among their research, they’ve found that air quality within the “Rethinking I-94” project corridor is more than three times worse than healthy benchmarks set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The thinking goes that rather than treat the two metropolitan cities like a through-street, or a place to drive into just to get out of, drivers who aren’t heading into St. Paul or Minneapolis for fun, family or commerce could reroute to Interstates 694 and 494, beltway corridors that curve around the Twin Cities.

Against road widening

MnDOT has long noted it can only mill and overlay the highway so many times, and major improvements are needed along the corridor. Those improvements could begin in 2026, depending upon how planning and funding come together. A preliminary list of potential construction scenarios this summer will lay out possible concepts, but it remains unclear if freeway removal will be one of them.

Nevertheless, state transportation officials have promised to be more sensitive to residents’ concerns than their predecessors were when the interstate was first constructed.

“We recognize the actions 60 years ago devastated communities and those impacts are still felt today,” said Christine Krueger, a communications director with the state transportation department. “MnDOT and our partners are today prioritizing the wellbeing of people. Our work the last few years has focused on understanding the communities in these neighborhoods, especially the people of color and Indigenous people.”

ADVERTISEMENT

If there’s one aspect of the Our Streets Minneapolis vision that has already resonated with city officials in St. Paul, it’s arguments against “induced demand,” or widening the interstate so as to accommodate more vehicles.

In February 2021, the St. Paul City Council called on MnDOT to reject any proposal that might include adding or widening vehicular travel lanes on I-94.

‘Reconnect Rondo’

But canceling the interstate?

It’s a vision that fundamentally departs from the longstanding and widely-accepted status quo — the concept of I-94 as the quickest way in, out and through both Minneapolis and the capital city. It’s also a vision that conflicts, at least at first blush, with that of another grassroots planning effort focused on the highway.

rondo030422.PNG
An aerial photo of the Victoria Street bridge over Interstate 94 in St. Paul on April 25, 2018, shows how the freeway split the former Rondo neighborhood.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press file photo

In St. Paul, organizers behind the Reconnect Rondo “land bridge” initiative are urging MnDOT to install a highway “lid” for four blocks — or 3,000 feet — between Chatsworth and Grotto streets. A new surface built over the highway trench would allow for new real estate development, including up to 500 new homes, to link historically-Black communities separated years ago by I-94 construction.

“Freeway lids don’t improve air quality,” said Burns on Monday, rejecting the idea. “They don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The benefits are super localized. It’s a huge project corridor, and it brings benefits to three or four blocks.”

St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali said she was still in the process of reading the fine-print, but she was generally supportive of the idea of thinking big about what may seem at first like an over-the-top concept. Removing a freeway, she noted, is no more radical than installing one in the first place.

Rather than undermine the efforts of Reconnect Rondo, replacing the highway with a boulevard could facilitate the same goals, she said.

ADVERTISEMENT

“This is the first plan I’ve seen that … pushes the conversation to really call MnDOT to think about this ambitiously,” said Jalali, who represents much of the area north of I-94 from the Minneapolis border to Lexington Parkway. “We have to, as the community, lift up an ambitious vision that could include freeway removal.”

Other members of the city council appear less enthused.

“I just don’t see it as a practical thing to do at this time, given commerce and economy, and just how people get around in our community,” said St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao, who represents the Frogtown, Summit-University and Union Park neighborhoods along the interstate. “Right now it doesn’t make sense to me.”

Thao, who has voiced support for a highway lid, noted that highway access is a major selling point for development opportunities in the Midway, including vacant land around Allianz Field.

“I think we can certainly improve the highway, make it more environmentally friendly,” he said.

Poor air quality, and less transportation access

Officials on all sides of interstate planning agree that health, job and income disparities for freeway-area residents — many of them residents of color — are well-documented concerns. Rates of asthma hospitalization near I-94 are three times the state average, according to Our Streets. Life expectancy for a person born along the freeway corridor is five years less than the Twin Cities average, and annual household incomes are nearly $35,000 less than the Twin Cities average.

Perhaps most ironic is transportation access, or lack thereof. Some 28% of households living near the freeway don’t own a car, which is double the Minneapolis and St. Paul average.

In addition to removing the freeway, Our Streets Minneapolis advocates for returning unused freeway land to neighboring communities through a community land trust, and implementing “robust community benchmarks and policies within the corridor to repair historic harms,” including preventing displacement.

What to read next
“History has this sort of really funny way of recycling,” Pao Houa Her says. “Hmong people are given these lands that are deemed uninhabitable, and they’re having to make do with what they have.”
Primary elections typically have a significantly lower turnout than the November general election. Minnesota has had nation-leading voter turnout in its last three general elections, reaching nearly 80% in 2020.
The target of the legal action, Edwin Hahn, ran unsuccessfully as an unendorsed Republican candidate for state Senate in District 4 in Minnesota's primary election.
“The idea of being able to vote for yourself as the first trans person you've ever seen on the ballot is, I mean, it's special,” Finke said. “We're around and we deserve representation"