Interstate 94 between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul is an urban transportation nightmare from which its neighbors are struggling to wake up. Thankfully, the Biden administration has launched a new grant program to mitigate harms from transportation infrastructure, including highways. The Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program appears tailor-made to help the Twin Cities design a fix to our freeway problem.
Timing is critical. To be considered for a grant, Minneapolis and St. Paul officials must apply by Oct. 13 – a mere month away. Plus, the 7.5 mile section of I-94 between downtowns is set to be rebuilt in the next few years. This project will establish the future of the corridor for the next half-century. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is already considering various design alternatives that the public has yet to see.
The I-94 project corridor spans Minneapolis and St. Paul, but so far the two cities are refusing to work together to submit a coordinated planning proposal to address the entire project area.
Highways are a rural transportation strategy that should never have been built within city limits. Top-tier cities across North America and around the world are realizing that urban highways don’t work and are successfully removing them. Yet many of us seem complacent about our highway. For any Twin Citian younger than 50, I-94 has simply always been there, along with its pollution, noise, danger and disconnection.
However, just because people are accustomed to I-94 doesn’t mean it’s a good idea or a permanent feature. But highway departments do highways. Without intervention, we should prepare to see plans for more lanes tearing through mostly disinvested neighborhoods with bigger ramps and more complicated exchanges. Maybe a smattering of trees, public art or a new bike or carpool lane will be pitched to make the expansion seem “equitable, green and welcoming.”
Two community-based advocacy campaigns have emerged to influence the outcome of the highway project. Both groups’ fundamental goals are worthy, and the tactics and outcomes of their ideas should be determined with the help of a jointly-submitted planning proposal.
ReConnect Rondo (RCR) is a group of Black leaders working with MnDOT, elected officials and neighborhood institutions to capitalize upon the I-94 project to revitalize Rondo, St. Paul’s historically Black community that was physically and economically torn apart by the highway, harming generations of residents. RCR’s proposal currently centers on building a developed bridge over two to three blocks of a rebuilt highway. Their focus is limited in scope to the Rondo neighborhood but their fundamental purpose is essential. Restitution for Rondo descendants and physical reconnection for current residents are vitally important. Ideally, with the assistance of the federal grant their proposed solution could be revised to also solve the highway’s terrible pollution and health impacts on the Rondo community – things that a lid would not address.
A different group composed of transportation, neighborhood, climate justice and health advocacy organizations and coordinated by Our Streets Minneapolis is focused on repairing harms along the entire 7.5 mile stretch of I-94. They’ve proposed replacing the highway with the Twin Cities Boulevard – filling in the gaping trench and reconnecting surrounding communities with dedicated transit, bicycle and slower-speed traffic lanes in addition to new affordable, anti-displacement housing, business space and parkland. The initial Twin Cities Boulevard schematics – not pie-in-the-sky but vetted by a transportation engineer with experience replacing highways – show a green ribbon linking both cities and all adjacent neighborhoods, lined with the vitality of thousands of new homes and businesses where today the highway torments its neighbors.
St. Paul is prepared to submit a federal grant proposal to study the Rondo land bridge. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Public Works leadership have said that they will sit this year’s grant round out to be respectful of the RCR proposal.
But waiting, in this case, is far from respectful. It means forfeiting the chance for critical, corridor-wide planning activities and true reparative justice for the entire project corridor. The thousands of Minneapolis and St. Paul residents who live outside the proposed land bridge area will continue to be subjected to the highway’s air and noise pollution, health impacts, traffic and disconnection. These people, who are disproportionately low-income and people of color, will be further marginalized.
The harms of I-94 must be analyzed as a continuum and not as a localized problem. This year’s federal planning grant funding is ample. It can and should be proposed and shared between Minneapolis and St. Paul for a coordinated community and engineering review that answers important questions about both community-based proposals. Twin Cities transportation leaders can and must work together toward a healthy, connected community the full length of the I-94 project area.
Mary Morse Marti is the former executive director of Move Minneapolis, an original founder of HOURCAR.