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Highway battles of past can offer Southwest LRT solution

Contentiousness and foot-dragging can pay off in a better outcome — not the best engineering solution perhaps, but something that really works.

I-94 between Pascal and downtown St. Paul, looking east, August 1967.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Seeing an orchestra perform (as we used to do here in the Twin Cities) gives you hope for humanity. If a hundred or so people can get together to play instruments as various as flutes and trombones without lawsuits or recriminations, then maybe we do have a future.

Contemplating transportation planning is another story. So many actors — public officials from myriad jurisdictions, business groups, citizens and experts — with agendas that are poles apart can stall a project out or transform it into a misbegotten mess.

That’s my fear for the Southwest LRT, a necessary addition to the system, which now seems hopelessly bogged down. We’re faced with a Hobbesian choice between having the line running through a Minneapolis lakeside neighborhood or putting freight trains on a two-story high berm in St. Louis Park or tunneling underground, which would save everybody the hassle — for a mere half billion dollars, not to mention a lot of construction disruption. And, if we don’t hurry up and decide, the Twin Cities may lose its place in line for federal funding which will pay up to 50 percent of the cost.

So, I wanted to harken back to the past to see what it might have to say about this dilemma. And I immediately thought of the 28th Street Expressway, a highway proposed in the late 1960s to travel from downtown Minneapolis to Highway 7 by way of the isthmus between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles.

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As we all know, a freeway has the same effect on land as a broadsword has on flesh. With six 12-foot-wide lanes of traffic, plus another 30 feet for shoulders and a median, both lakes and their surrounding parkland would have become wastelands, unusable, polluted and ugly. Obviously, the decision not to build it was sound. So how did all the conflicting interests come together to make that happen — or in this case, not happen?

Well, sad to say, I still don’t know. It seems as though the idea just got dropped at some point. But in my research, I came across “Politics and Freeways: Building the Twin Cities Interstate System,” a 2006 doctoral dissertation by Patricia Cavanaugh, who is now an assistant professor at Carleton College in Northfield. It made me think that when it comes to transportation planning, slow may be the way to go.

Freeway building, Cavanaugh says, took place in three time frames: 1) the era of the mega project, from 1956 when Congress authorized the interstate highway program to the late 1960s; 2) an “expansion of debate” period, from 1970 to 1990, when the government started requiring highway designers to produce environmental impact statements and give voice to community groups; and 3) the era of “falling behind,” which starts in the ‘90s and continues to this day, thanks to stingy public funding, anti-tax sentiment and disillusion with government enterprises.

Progress and prosperity

In the era of the mega-project, there was broad consensus that federal highways would lead to progress and prosperity. In Minnesota, public officials assumed that the Interstates would invigorate downtown business (not really understanding that what could whoosh people into the city could also whoosh them out to the suburbs) and, when coupled with federal urban renewal programs, remove blight.

Elected officials readily acceded to the expertise of engineers whose efforts produced I-94 connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, I-35W and the Highway 62 Crosstown Expressway. Planning for projects back then was rushed to completion; states had only one year to get cost estimates to the Department of Public Roads to capture as quickly as possible federal funds, which would pay for 90 percent of construction costs.

That wholesale acceptance of professional expertise — and hurry — produced two notable botches. First was the wholesale destruction of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. I-94’s path was to run along St. Anthony Avenue, its main drag, and even though another route to the north came under consideration, Minnesota Highway Department officials made it clear that there was no time for disputes. The result of the freeway project: one-eighth of the African-Americans in St. Paul lost their homes and black-owned businesses went under and never came back. “What formerly had been a vibrant mixed community became primarily black and economically depressed,” writes Cavanaugh.

Interestingly, the wealthier Merriam neighborhood, on the western edge of St. Paul, got an interchange switch from Prior Avenue, where it would have run through a Catholic school, hospital and two colleges, to change to Cretin, largely because the Archbishop of St. Paul threatened to take his case to Washington.

The second mess was the I-35/62 Crosstown Commons, which would connect Fort Snelling and Highway 100. The result, which married the high-speed Interstate with a local highway, requiring cars to weave back and forth, turned it into what state troopers called “Blood Alley.”

“The tension between building a high-speed limited access freeway and the needs for local access in the neighborhoods through which it travels has resulted in compromise designs, inadequate capacity and disgruntlement all around,” wrote one public official after it was built. The two highways were finally separated a couple of years ago at a cost of $288 million.

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In Era 2, citizens, having witnessed what freeway construction did to urban neighborhoods, ramped up participation. And they managed to stop the worst of the worst and improve things somewhat. A dedicated group of local residents opposed the construction of a North Ring freeway, which would have traveled from Johnson Street and I-35W on the east to I-94 on the west, pretty much gutting the now artsy Northeast.

The road would have nicely completed a ring of highways around the city and supposedly ease traffic pressure on the Lowry tunnel to the south, which would, according to business interests, “save downtown.” The Minneapolis City Council approved the plan in 1971, but the I-35 Concerned Citizens Committee lobbied for eight years, catching the attention of U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale and Rep. Don Fraser, who helped convince then-Transportation Secretary John Volpe to halt funding for the project “pending further study” in 1972.

From then on, it was all downhill. Gradually, the road lost the support of the city, the Legislature and the governor. It was delisted from the federal system in 1978.

Winners and losers

Winners and losers in other freeway battles weren’t so clear. The creation of the I-35 link to downtown St. Paul (I-35E) in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s provoked the ire of citizens groups, some of whom merely lived on a bluff overlooking what would become the highway. Armed with new tools made available under the National Environmental Protection Act to require impact assessments, they won a moratorium on construction but were labeled “eco-freaks” by pro-highway groups who felt that downtown St. Paul needed a high-speed link to the suburbs. The project became mired in lawsuits.

Eventually, then Gov. Rudy Perpich turned the project over to St. Paul, and after a final legal defeat, the major citizens’ group, RIP 35E, worked out a compromise with the city — a parkway, with a connection to I-94 that managed to preserve the surrounding neighborhood. The ribbon-cutting ceremony didn’t take place until 1990, 26 years after construction first started. Cavanaugh notes:

If the measure of a successful compromise is that no one is totally happy with the result, then the I-35E link was a success. Members of RIP 35E and other neighborhood freeway opponents were unhappy because there was a direct link with I-94. Dakota County residents were unhappy because they wanted a high-speed freeway. Truckers were unhappy because they could not use the route…Yet, the result was undeniably innovative, drawing interest from highway engineers from around the United States.

The development of Highway 12 (Wayzata Boulevard) into I-394 was also messy — one citizen group campaigned with the slogan “It will make an alley out of Golden Valley” — and lasted from 1968, when the route was first listed as a potential Interstate project, until 1991, when the eastbound lanes opened. In those years, reports Cavanaugh, public opinion surveys showed an increasing interest on the part of Twin Cities residents developing in mass transit.

Somewhere along the way, agreement formed that if the former Wayzata Boulevard was to turn into an Interstate, there would have to be accompanying light rail or bus rapid transit projects to supplement it. Some wanted the LRT to run in the middle of the highway (that would have been my preference); others wanted it to run along Highways 55 and 7 (which would have become the Southwest LRT).

The result of all the negotiation, lawsuits and endless environmental impact statements was a freeway with: High Occupancy Vehicle lanes that accept car pools and buses; park-and-ride lots to accommodate car-poolers; and bus stations for commuters.

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The Metropolitan Transit Commission wasn’t allocated enough money to buy all the buses it needed; so in its early days the highway was backed up from downtown to Louisiana Avenue. By 1993, however, ridership in the HOV lanes had already met its year 2000 goal; half of those in rush-hour traffic were in carpools or buses. (Those HOV lanes have since become High Occupancy Toll lanes, which allow for a kind of congestion pricing. The greater the amount of traffic, the more a single-occupancy driver pays.) The highway became a nationally recognized model of multi-modal transportation.

If there’s any takeaway from all this, it’s that the contentiousness and foot-dragging can pay off in a better outcome — not the best engineering solution perhaps, but something that really works. So it should go with the Southwest LRT. If we step back, maybe we’ll find some better options than what we’ve got now.