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Is it time to start dismantling downtown freeways?

We're coming to a point where many freeways are reaching the end of their 40- to 50-year useful lives. I-35 was built in the 1960s.

The last time I visited Boston, I got completely lost and had to ask a cop for directions. Even though I attended college there, the city had become unrecognizable — in a good way.

Instead of the deep shadows cast by dingy overhead freeways, there was sunlight bathing buildings and streets. The sky was visible, and no longer was every surface coated with the grime of auto emissions. 

The reason for this change was, of course, the Big Dig, a $14 billion project that transformed Boston’s Central Artery (I-93) into an underground tunnel. Boston residents I know who had been hypercritical of the supposed boondoggle had to admit that the absence of the giant highway improved the city.

“It created millions of dollars in real estate, reconnected the North End to the South End, cleaned up the city. It was all good,” says Phyllis Baumann, a longtime Bostonian.

Other U.S. cities are contemplating taking matters a step further: Instead of hiding urban freeways from public view, they are talking about dismantling them. Elevated highways — or portions of them — have already been razed in San Francisco, Baltimore, New Haven and Providence. Groups in Dallas and St. Louis are pushing for their own freeway take-downs, and New Orleans is considering scrapping the Claiborne Expressway which divided black neighborhoods. New York City has on its agenda demolition of the Bronx’ Sheridan Expressway.

Twin Cities heresy?

I know. It sounds like heresy, especially here. After all, the Twin Cities only recently completed the reconstruction of the I-35 bridge (2008) and the re-engineering of the I-35-Crosstown Commons (2011).

But ever since Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” stopped Robert Moses from building a freeway across Greenwich Village back in the 1960s, it’s been widely accepted that freeways aren’t exactly boons to cities. They rip apart neighborhoods, produce tons of pollution and noise and take land off the property tax rolls, forcing everybody else to pay more.

Some of the Twin Cities’ freeways are nonsensical; they could disappear without anybody missing them, as Bill Lindeke pointed out in a recent Blog Cabin post.

Also fueling the “junk the freeways” crusade is the increasing expense of repairing them. We’re coming to a point where many freeways are reaching the end of their 40- to 50-year useful lives. Both I-94 and I-35, for example, were built in the 1960s.

In its 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that bringing U.S. roads up to snuff would cost $170 billion a year, about $80 billion more a year than we’re spending. Even if city highways made up only a quarter of that, we’d be facing a punishing bill in an era when public funds are tight and revenues from gas taxes are dropping.

Downtown freeways wasteful?

Nobody is saying that we should do away with the entire interstate highway system. Obviously, it provides efficient car and truck travel from city to city. But freeways cutting through downtowns?

Norman Bel Geddes, perhaps the first to envision a network of grade-separated limited-access roads in his 1940 book “Magic Motorways,” objected to introducing such construction into city street grids. Even Eisenhower, the progenitor of the modern interstate system, was shocked when he learned that freeway construction in Washington, D.C., had him halted in a traffic jam. He thought the highways were to be built between cities not in them.

The presence of those vast swaths of concrete is more a result of cities’ financial limitations than anything else. In the 1920s and1930s, when cars started to clog streets, city officials appealed to their respective states to help pay for new roads. State engineers took over freeway planning, building wide highways regardless of the local topography.

Highways became even more destructive to cities in the Eisenhower era, when the federal government provided 90 percent of every dollar spent, according to a paper (PDF) from Jeffrey R. Brown, Eric A. Morris, and Brian D. Taylor, three city planning academics. Conforming to federal standards, “the roads designed and built by the state highway departments were often large, elaborate affairs whose complex interchanges had outsized footprints that were difficult to shoehorn into existing, built-up areas.”

These days, public officials, transportation planners, traffic engineers and city residents are coming to see those highways as wastes of space that don’t do much to cut travel time. It has become an axiom of transportation planning — called “induced demand” — that new highways increase congestion by encouraging people to move further out to lower-density neighborhoods and to drive more than they otherwise would.

John O. Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and now president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit dedicated to, among other things, “turning highways into boulevards,” points out that “cars travel farther and farther between increasingly insignificant destinations.” He was talking about Detroit, but the observation could apply to almost any other city.

Norquist has hands-on experience with highway deconstruction. In 2003, he oversaw the demolition of Milwaukee’s mile-long Park East Freeway, which he described as basically “a long off-ramp” into downtown that was due for $80 million in repairs. Removing the structure cost only $25 million, reconnected local streets and opened up 26 acres of land for redevelopment. Manpower Worldwide, the placement firm, relocated its headquarters there, and a $54 million 30-story apartment complex has gone up.

Still, new construction has proceeded more slowly than Norquist had hoped. He blames the delay on labor interests and right-wing politicians opposed to tearing down the highway. They placed strict “social benefit” requirements on any new development; for example, incoming companies must pay at least $2 over the minimum wage, use union labor and so on. (The Great Recession probably played a role, too.) “There’s still a lot of empty land,” he says. 

Success stories

A more successful project perhaps has been San Francisco’s demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway after it was partially destroyed by the 1989 earthquake. Removing the freeway opened the city to the waterfront. The double-decker freeway was replaced with a tree-lined boulevard that has attracted 3,000 housing units and thousands of square feet of office space, and sent the value of nearby waterfront property rising by some 300 percent.

Further afield is the Cheonggyecheon elevated freeway in Seoul, South Korea. In 2003, the city demolished the roadway and restored the stream that had been flowing beneath it. Now it’s a 3.6-mile long linear park with two-lane one-way streets one either side. Previously, the roadway carried 168,000 cars a day. Soon after opening, the park attracted 90,000 visitors a day; property values in the area rose by 30 percent.

And what of the hapless car commuter?

Cities that have done away with a freeway or two have found to their amazement that the much-feared Carmageddon never materialized. Conventional urban street grids distributed traffic pretty well, and drivers cleverly found alternative paths to their destinations. Beefing up public transit simultaneously helps. Seoul added bus rapid transit to ease some of the pressure. 

I assumed that proposing a tear-down of any portion of a federal roadway would be near impossible, but Norquist says that he found surprisingly few obstacles. “You have to petition the government to delist the road,” he says. “There was talk that we would have to pay something back to the federal government, but we didn’t.”

Norquist’s parents lived in St. Paul, and he is not reluctant to say that the Twin Cities have “way too many freeways.”

That I-94 cuts downtown St. Paul off from the Capitol is the loss of a major asset. Without it, all those government workers could be shopping and eating lunch downtown. But he admits that getting rid of a highway connecting two cities and sitting in a major trench would be near impossible. He instead suggests going for the low-hanging fruit that would free up land and increase connectivity. Long off-ramps may be the best candidates.

I called around to Minneapolis and St. Paul and found that nobody knew of any plans to demolish freeways — or pieces of them — here. Given the cost of shoring them up, however, maybe someone should start thinking about it.

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/09/2013 - 10:25 am.

    Cover them.

    I’ve been thinking lately that our freeways, say between Lowry and 35W would become covered tunnels. Likewise the stretch between the capital and downtown St. Paul could be covered. All you have to do is look at the bridge grades there and you can see bridging between the bridges wouldn’t be that complicated.

    • Submitted by Sean Fahey on 07/09/2013 - 02:27 pm.


      Much of the interstate through the metro is already in a trench, we’re halfway there! Covering them would keep the roads safer from snow and ice, and reduce the noise, air, and light pollution exposed to people on the street. Imagine the property values of the buildings along 94 that now have open downtown views but without the significant noise of the interstate. I used to live in an apartment across from the Convention Center and the sound was unbelievable. Loved the view, but could not sleep with the windows open when the semis are all engine braking at 5am.

      We could create covers of various strengths as needed in different areas. Maybe some wouldn’t be more than a green roof, without the ability to support buildings. Others could be strengthened to allow for future development.

      If cars fall out of fashion the tunnels could be repurposed, and be better protected, for uses like high speed interstate or local trains. And if cars continue to stay on top, but start to go electric and driverless, possible tunnel-pitfalls like filtering the air or handling accidents will become more manageable.

  2. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 07/09/2013 - 10:44 am.

    Low Hanging Fruit

    Obviously the long, elevated exit ramps are great places to start. Most of the freeways in our cities are below grade which makes removal a little more difficult (costly) than simply taking down decks and putting a boulevard in their place. Land bridges work for strategically reconnecting the grid at certain locations, and is the purest form of TIF out there – creating air rights development and selling it off to pay for a good chunk of the capital costs. Long-term incremental tax revenues can cover bonding costs in addition to local public space maintenance costs.

    Other options should be explored. One of the worst areas, in my opinion, is the 35W/94 commons. The Lowry Tunnel helps hide some of the issues, but this space is among the most valuable in the metro area. Couple ideas are explored here:

    Combine these projects with market-pricing on urban freeways and parking, freeing up housing/buisiness resulations (parking minimums, single-use zoning, etc etc), and any reduction in capacity would be offset by reduced auto travel (due to paying actual market prices and people having the option to live closer). Case studies have already shown massive congestion was not a result of urban freeway removal (as Marlys points out), but quite the opposite.

    Just some ideas.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/09/2013 - 10:46 am.

    Shop where downtown St. Paul?

    I am just asking.

    Your article mixes arguments and is hard to follow first you talk about urban freeways i.e. center city and then you talk about induced demand – which of course would be not an urban freeway but a outside of the urban area free which were “okay” several paragraphs before. It comes off as just an anti freeway piece.

    Despite the muddled arguments and anti freeway tone, I think this may be an idea worth pondering to some extent. But only if simultaneous rail service goes in and more extensive rail service than these two valuable but tiny pieces. Many of the cities mentioned already have extensive transit options that are not buses and a widespread culture of using transit.

  4. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 07/09/2013 - 10:58 am.

    Also worth noting

    To support the notion that removal of freeway capacity close to CBDs and urban neighborhoods would not be a catastrophe:

    If increased freeway capacity increases local street traffic, it would stand to reason that removal of freeway capacity would have the opposite effect. Especially if paired with improvements in walking, biking, and transit infrastructure (which are all being done – bike lanes continue to improve, CC LRT nearly finished, SWLRT and Blue Line extensions, Mpls Streetcar systems, aBRT improvements to major transit corridors, etc etc).

  5. Submitted by Charles Gray on 07/09/2013 - 11:26 am.

    Great example?

    Always interesting to note that Vancouver, which allowed no freeways in its city limits, is nonetheless the core city of North America’s fastest-growing major metro area. And it’s a city of coherent neighborhoods, unmangled by masses of concrete.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 07/09/2013 - 12:13 pm.


      They’re proposing tearing down the only viaduct in town (not really a freeway, but still a massive blight on the neighborhood). Sadly, what I’ve seen of the plans for replacement is still a Stroad that doesn’t improve surrounding private property as much as it could.

  6. Submitted by Rich Crose on 07/09/2013 - 12:17 pm.

    Free Stadium Land

    Build the Viking Stadium over 35w right next to the Metrodome. You don’t have to tear down the Dome until it is done and it would create a walkway between the U of M and Downtown. The land that the Dome takes up could be reused.

  7. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 07/09/2013 - 01:10 pm.

    thanks for taking this idea seriously

    Most engineers likely see these ideas as non-starters, but that’s because they’re not accounting for induced demand or changing VMT trends. (Not to mention the impact that urban freeways have on their surrounding neighborhoods.)

    Another one for the list would be Warner/Shepard Road in Saint Paul, neatly cutting off downtown from the river.

  8. Submitted by David Frenkel on 07/09/2013 - 01:25 pm.

    Every city is different

    The Embarcadaro Freeway in SF was a freeway to nowhere that was originally envisioned to be completed out to the Golden Gate Bridge but that obviously never happened. The earthquake that damaged it was an excuse to use federal tax dollars to take it down.
    Seattle is spending billions removing its water front freeway that is no small task which includes rebuilding a sea wall.
    Talk is cheap but these ‘removal’ projects cost billions at the same time we have bridges in need of repair. New construction is sexy and maintenance is just a budget line item.
    The Minneapolis Park Board wants to bury Lake St north of Lake Calhoun of a mere $40 million. People complain about taxes but doesn’t stop people from asking that more of it to be spent.

  9. Submitted by John DeWitt on 07/09/2013 - 02:24 pm.

    Freeways that weren’t

    Some may recall the freeways that were never built. The 26th St. Crosstown would have been a freeway just north of today’s Midtown Greenway. Until recently, there were some vestigial on/off ramps at the I94/280 junction. Downtown Minneapolis business interests pushed for a freeway closer to the CBD and it was finally realized that parallel freeways about a mile apart made little sense.

    The Southwest Diagonal would have run through the soon to be vacated railroad yards and shops in what is now the Kenilworth Corridor connecting what is now I-394 to suburbs to the southwest. A group called HELP (Highways Eliminate Lakes and Parks) was formed and successfully argued that the corridor should be saved for light rail.

    I-394 was intended to cross the Mississippi and connect up with I-35W in NE Minneapolis. I believe that Rep. Phyllis Kahn played a role in stopping that.

    Few may remember today that back in the early 70s our Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC – predecessor to today’s Metro Transit) had a nationwide reputation for progressive planning and research. That came to a screeching halt when the Met Council stripped the MTC of all planning authority. It was 25 years before we started the Hiawatha Light Rail Line. But that’s a story for another day.

  10. Submitted by Monica Millsap on 07/09/2013 - 02:52 pm.

    Without it, all those government workers could be

    shopping and eating lunch downtown.” And why aren’t they now? And if they aren’t now, will they ever no matter what we do? I’ve never had a problem walking from the Capitol Building to downtown and vice versa. There are sidewalks and streets that take pedestrians and bicyclists and transit riders and even motor vehicles directly there and back from downtown St Paul. There will soon be a light rail. In fact, I doubt anyone currently takes the freeway to get from the Capitol to downtown St Paul and I doubt anyone has every had a problem getting to and from the Capitol Building from downtown because of the freeway.

    The point of this particular column is, obviously, anti-freeway rather than pro alternative transportation modes. While there may be benefits to limiting freeways in downtown cores, the reality is that many citizens of St Paul and Minneapolis seem to get around via bicycle, pedestrian modes, or public transit despite freeways and other auto traffic. In fact, where auto traffic flows the smoothest, I find my bus ride and my ability to cross streets as a pedestrian are more efficient as well. Being anti-car and anti-freeway doesn’t necessarily benefit anyone unless we are also for an alternative that is as accessible and convenient as streets, cars, and freeways are.

    • Submitted by Marcus Nielson on 07/13/2013 - 03:33 pm.

      There are not that accessible

      For example, I commute by bike from south Minneapolis to Downtown/Elliot Park neighborhood. With Park and Portland under construction I have far few options than I usually do. Typically I take 1st street into Downtown, but if needed to use a different route for whatever reason (grocery, shopping etc.) I currently have no options of getting over 35w/94 between 3rd and Chicago. Even if they don’t create a physical barrier there is certainly a psychological barrier- it really is not a appealing walk over or under a Interstate/ Highway. One big reason I love the idea of the Nicollet/ Central streetcar is that is going to make eat street and even NE much more appealing for visitors/tourists and residents of downtown to get to.

  11. Submitted by Clark Starr on 07/09/2013 - 04:42 pm.

    Yes… god yes

    Getting rid of the freeways–or burying them deep–would be such and improvement. I was in Chicago when they made the relatively minor (though I’m sure ridiculously expensive) change in Lake Shore Drive, uniting the museum campus area. An amazing improvement.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 07/09/2013 - 04:49 pm.

      It’s easy to underestimate

      How big a difference a simple change for the better in atmosphere can make. Take out the part where pedestrians have to cross over a smelly, roaring interstate highway and of course more people will walk that way.

  12. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 07/09/2013 - 06:54 pm.

    I’m all about being trendy, but how much demand for new land is there? There are still acres and acres and acres of surface parking lots in Downtown Minneapolis, plenty of depressed demand in general in Downtown St. Paul, and plenty of vacant land elsewhere throughout the urbanized core of the metro. Considering the game of hot potato being played for the management responsibilities for the proposed two block park near the new Vikings stadium, it’d seem like adding new parkland is out too. Other than a couple specific examples like the North Loop viaduct, this scheme is pretty far-fetched. Tearing down some of the terrible 1950s and 1960s parking ramps downtown would be a better way to create new land. Looking at you, Gateway Ramp.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 07/10/2013 - 09:23 am.

      While this is true

      How much of that land is being speculated? What if the city parceled out land-bridges and area much smaller than typical parcels and sold them off to developers who would do something with it? Maybe I’m wrong, but the U and downtown are seeing a lot of luxury apartments, when that saturates would there be no demand for cheaper infill?

  13. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/09/2013 - 09:32 pm.


    Please have Mark Dayton and the DFL embrace this proposal…please!!!!

  14. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/10/2013 - 08:24 am.

    Answering the rhetorical question


    If there’s a viable alternative/supplement.

    I don’t know St. Paul, so I can’t speak to that situation. In Minneapolis, I don’t see a viable alternative at present.

    The mistake(s) were made decades ago when initially laying out the routes for interstate highways. Apparently, no one foresaw the likelihood of “beltways” around major cities, so instead of having these big, new highways pass through the outskirts of those cities, with perhaps 2 or 3 exits/entrances feeding the city’s street grid, someone, somewhere, decided it would be better to have the highway go right through the heart of whatever city was next on the list for interstate construction.

    While not impossible, it’s very difficult, politically and economically, to reverse those kinds of generations-ago decisions, even if they’ve proven to be mistakes, or to have unintended consequences so serious that the initial benefits have been largely cancelled out. At the moment, I don’t see either a viable transportation alternative in the Twin Cities, nor do I see anything approaching the necessary political will, and without the former, I suspect there will not be the latter, at least in my lifetime.

  15. Submitted by Alex Bauman on 07/11/2013 - 10:05 am.

    Who did you talk to in Minneapolis?

    The North Loop neighborhood was very supportive of removing the 4th St viaduct until someone from MnDOT or the City lied to them about how much land would be made available by doing so. It’s disappointing if anyone involved in transportation planning or policy who has been at the City for more than a few years hasn’t heard about it.

  16. Submitted by Brian Elfert on 07/11/2013 - 03:02 pm.

    Remove a few long entrance/exit ramps, sure. Tear up I35W, I35E, and I94 going through Minneapolis and St. Paul heck NO! Are we going to rebuild I694 and I 494 to five lanes in each direction to handle all the traffic currently using the other roads? We don’t have anywhere enough surface streets to handle the traffic load that 35E, 35W, and I94 carry.

    Sure, you can put highways underground, but who pays for it? I94 between the two downtowns needs a $1.2 billion rebuild that may never happen due to the cost. If we can’t afford $1.2 billion to rebuild the road as-is, how could we afford a $5 billion plus underground road?

    How are surface streets supposed to get folks to work just as fast? Even a freeway moving at a fairly consistent 20 MPH can be as fast/faster than surface streets where half the time is spent at stop lights. Surface streets also reduce fuel economy thus wasting even more fuel.

    Boston had rush hour congestion 12 hours a day which is why they did the Big Dig. It is unlikely the federal government would ever finance a road project of that scale again.

  17. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 07/15/2013 - 05:18 pm.

    And the conversation continues…

    Lots more conversation going on about this subject here:

  18. Submitted by Brian Lavelle on 07/16/2013 - 01:54 pm.

    Look at Curitiba, Brazil’s transit system

    Jaime Lerner and a handful of enlightened others transformed a lacklustre system into one which has become the envy of the world. Also, if you really want to build a green transport system, look at what Geneva, Switzerland is building….Scroll down at this site and play the short video

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