For years, advocates and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) have been engaged in a subtle game of three-dimensional advocacy chess. It centers on the central portion of Interstate 94, the state’s most used freeway, which carries around 150,000 cars a day between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Built more than 60 years ago, the central link of I-94 is approaching its “design life” and soon much of it will have to be reconstructed at great expense. The open question is whether MnDOT will try to expand the freeway when it undergoes construction.
The agency is rapidly approaching a key decision point as a committee meets this week. Following a multiyear agency public-engagement effort on one hand, titled “Rethinking I-94,” groups of social justice and environmental advocates have taken a preemptive position on the future of the state’s busiest freeway.
“There are a lot of layers and complexities to any kind of transportation project,” explained Keith Baker, the managing director of Reconnect Rondo. “This is the most important corridor in the state, and having MnDOT, the city, the Met Council, and Ramsey County on the same page in reference to this opportunity is critical.”
Before he began working with Reconnect Rondo, an advocacy organization for St. Paul’s freeway-adjacent communities, Baker worked for 15 years at MnDOT. Last October, his Reconnect Rondo organization sent the agency a detailed eight-page position paper [PDF] calling for “an equitable and restorative development model” in planning for the freeway’s future. And in December, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a resolution [PDF] laying out a series of demands and expectations for how the freeway is used. (The St. Paul City Council is expected to pass a very similar resolution next week.)
Elephant in the room: climate change
The elephant in the room remains climate change, now a more urgent problem than ever. The problem is that, statewide and nationally, the transportation sector poses the largest challenge for decarbonization. While Minnesota has succeeded in cutting emissions from sectors like electricity generation, transportation pollution has grown as larger cars, trucks, and SUVs continue to increase the state’s overall Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).
In 2019, MnDOT released a report on its goals for reducing carbon through encouraging electric vehicles. But even those plans barely included overall VMT reductions, making it difficult to reach ambitious climate goals.
The decision around central I-94 might be an opportunity to take the next step.
“This is incredibly important for the future of the city, and it’s going to be a long fight,” said Alex Burns, the Land Use and Transportation chair for the local Sierra Club chapter. “There’s a tremendous opportunity given the change in administration and changing opinions about urban freeway projects in general. We have an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before.”
If you look at the Minneapolis City Council resolution, it’s full of ideas that point to reducing traffic on the freeway. In it, the council states flatly that it “strongly opposes the repair or reconstruction of I-94 in its current form and categorically rejects any roadway expansion within its boundaries or any right of way expansion.”
In place of some existing freeway traffic, the City Council proposes taking an existing travel lane and converting it to a transit/carpool lane that would allow express buses and other “high occupancy vehicles” to speed between the cities, even during rush hour.
The resolution’s other details include better bridges and connections for walking and bike paths, sidewalks, and trails over the freeway, alongside mitigation efforts to reduce harmful pollution for people living nearby.
“I-94 was the most destructive project, and this is a once in a generation opportunity to repair that damage,” explained Burns. “The Sierra Club position is that if, MnDOT wants to brand this thing as ‘Rethinking 94,’ we’re calling on them to do that, and to really create infrastructure that centers on the health of people and ecosystems.”
The ugly history of I-94
Of course, the central spur of I-94 is not just any freeway, but a particularly infamous stretch of urban highway that is held up as a national example of the worst kind of midcentury freeway construction. When it was built it destroyed St. Paul’s largely African-American Rondo neighborhood, and that story has filled several books, a handful of documentaries, and at least one play. Thanks to the tireless work of African American community leaders in St. Paul, commemorating the historic Rondo neighborhood has long been the subject of an annual summer festival.
“While this is a transportation project, it cannot be viewed solely as a transportation project,” said Keith Baker of Reconnect Rondo. Baker’s four-year-old nonprofit centers on building support and funding for a “land bridge” that would put a lid over a central stretch of the freeway, relinking both sides of the historic Rondo community.
Since then, Reconnect Rondo has reframed its mission, to focus less on infrastructure specifics and more on revitalizing the city’s African American community that the freeway destroyed in the first place.
“Reconnect Rondo will help to create a unified voice within the community that will lead a restorative movement,” explained Baker. “By leading a restorative movement, we aim to revitalize the past of Rondo, looking to the future of an African American cultural enterprise district that’s connected by a community land bridge. The land bridge [itself] is merely a tool.”
For Baker, the Minneapolis City Council’s I-94 resolution is a good step forward, and he suggested “we don’t see anything within the resolution that hinders the work we’re doing.”
But as Baker sees it, the key for the future of Rondo community will be for MnDOT to truly rethink its goals. That’s why their position paper lays out an alternative vision for the DOT, rethinking the “purpose and need” of the freeway in the first place.
“The position paper speaks to the importance of social, economic, and environmental considerations to be up front in purpose and need rather than simply talking about infrastructure,” Baker explained.
For generations, traffic engineering has been nearly synonymous with freeway expansion. DOTs have long been tasked with the problem of reducing traffic congestion, which is an almost impossible goal given the perniciousness of human behavior around induced demand.
But this year, during a pandemic that saw travel behavior rapidly shift, there were some glimmers that MnDOT is starting to change its habits. In December, an external committee that advises the agency on climate policy, the Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council, approved recommendations to set goals for reducing driving statewide. Among the adopted principles are “reducing VMT statewide by 20% by 2050” and the corollary to “stop expanding highway capacity to reduce congestion.” [PDF]
Thirty years in the future might not seem like a significant time horizon, but even that goal represents a massive shift for an agency that has predicted growth in driving since its inception.
If the agency does move away from freeway expansion, it would join a select number of states that are already on board with taking a different tack. Some have adopted a “no new roads” policy, while others have a “fix it first” investment plan in place that strongly incentivizes agencies to prioritize maintenance over road expansion.
Elsewhere around the country, it’s another story. Destructive urban freeway expansion projects continue to be pitched and planned in cities like Portland (Oregon), Houston, Cleveland, Los Angeles and dozens of other cities.
Ending highway expansion would represent a huge political fight, especially for fast-growing exurban communities. But with incoming U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg openly calling for an urban freeway removal fund, the time might be right for MnDOT to shift gears.
Given the dark history of central I-94, which displaced thousands of African Americans and others from central St. Paul, next week’s decision seems like an ideal time to start.
“Our community has a continuum, and people are at different places,” said Baker. “Some want the doggone thing just to be filled in. Others say it’s OK to have a freeway, but don’t want expansion. Or that we need transit considerations, as well as ensuring connectivity so that biking and walking can take place.”
Baker and others will be closely watching this week’s meeting of the freeway’s policy advisory committee, as is members draft their “Purpose and Need Statement” for the freeway project.
“We are at an important point, talking about mobility equity,” he said. “Anything that gets us to mobility equity, we completely support.”