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Three Twin Cities freeways that no one would miss

The world’s longest on-ramp, on the west edge of downtown Minneapolis.

We’ve been down this road before. Urban freeways impact their neighborhoods through noise, pollution, and by creating barriers to biking, walking, and local trips. No matter how many sound walls you erect, freeways erode quality of life for a quarter- or half-mile in any direction. Fumes, noise, asthma, speeding traffic… nobody wants to live next to a freeway.

The 4th Street viaduct where it crashes into the downtown street grid.

Another big problem is what to do when the freeway ends. Anytime a high-speed road dead-ends into a low-speed street, we’re going to have problems. On-ramps are the most dangerous areas for anyone on foot or bicycle, because drivers’ perceptions have become acclimatized to fast roads. A good example is the (now-removed) Washington Avenue “freeway” that ran directly into the heart of the University of Minnesota campus, sending cars at 40+ mph into throngs of students. Very bad idea! Freeways are only as good as their network connections. Anytime you try to stop one, you undermine the whole point of a limited-access road in the first place. logo

Finally, and most paradoxically, freeways create their own demand. If you build a large new road, people will drive more. Take the road away, and people will drive less. Freeway removal projects in other cities have shown that much of the traffic simply disappears, some of it migrating to other roads or to other times of the day, some of it evaporating altogether.

Urban freeways are a mixed bag, to say the least, and we should take seriously the idea that we’d be better off without some of them. Here are my favorite three candidates for creative destruction.

Freeway: Hiawatha / MN-55

hiawatha-aveHistory: This is a state highway, one of the first freeways built in the Twin Cities. You can tell, too. Hiawatha was designed before we knew how to properly build a limited-access road. For years it was a south-east shortcut from downtown to the airport. Ten years ago, we built an expensive LRT along it. Today it has a medicore bike path, wide sidewalks, and carries 20,000 cars each day through a key park, many neighborhoods, and into downtown.

Main Problem: Everybody hates this so-called freeway. Waiting at the lights along Hiawatha is an exercise in frustration. But the main problem is the way Hiawatha divides the neighborhoods on either side. Whether in car, on foot, or on a bicycle, crossing Hiawatha is lengthy, unsafe, and unpleasant. Many times, I’ve watched people dash across the 6-lanes of traffic, running across this quasi-freeway to or from the LRT stations. Devoting all the space around transit stations to a half-assed freeway is no way to capitalize on an expensive investment.

Magic Wand: Waving my magic wand, I’d turn Hiawatha into an everyday 3-lane road. I’d take the Western half of the right-of-way and develop the land. Some of it could be a linear park, some of it could be mixed-use urbanism. Crossing this street would become easy and comfortable. The neighborhoods on either side would re-connect. Streets like Lake, 38th, and 46th would be continuous again, and see large increases in foot-traffic. Quality of life in a large part of South Minneapolis would be improved.

Freeway: Ayd Mill Road

ayd-mill-roadHistory: This is a long- controversial railroad trench running through Saint Paul. For years it was a little-used shortcut from the South-East suburbs to the western half of the city. In 2002, Mayor Randy Kelly, weilding Saint Paul’s unchecked mayoral powers, connected this so-called freeway to Interstate 35-E over the objections of the City Council. Today it remains a political football, carrying 15-20K cars each day.

Main Problem: Because it’s below grade, Ayd Mill is less of a barrier for the neighborhoods. Rather, its main problem is the traffic it generates and redistributes through the city. The corner of Selby and Snelling is ground zero. Every day for hours, traffic pours off the “freeway” to take a shortcut to I-94, making this key corner highly unpleasant. You see similar effects along Hamline and Lexington.

Magic Wand: There are a lot of ideas for how to fix this road. Some want to cut the road in half, creating a two-lane version with a trail alonside similar to the river road. Others want to build an expensive connection on the North end to I-94, turning this into a more proper “freeway.” If I had a magic wand, I’d choose ‘none of the above.’ Instead, remove all the pavement from this trench and turn it into Saint Paul’s “midtown greenway.” Biking and walking paths, parks, community gardens, all set into a lovely valley. Instead of detracting from the neighborhood, this area would become an asset.

Freeway: 4th street viaduct onramps

4th-st-viaductHistory: I-394 is the last proper freeway ever constructed in the Twin Cities (knocking on wood right now). When they built it, they included a viaduct to build two on-ramps running along 4th Street on the Western edge of downtown. At the time, most of the land around the extension was mix of LULUs: light industrial space, dilapidated buildings, vacant lots, the gargabe burner. Today, this land is prime space for development.

Main Problem: There are really two problems. First, having onramps lead directly onto city streets encourages cars to speed through what should be a walkable city. This is the spot where a man was killed earlier this year.

Worse than that, the 394 elevated causeway depresses everything in its shadow. The backside of the North Loop neighborhood is devalued by the road.

Magic Wand: Just take it down and replace it with a surface boulevard. All the land alongside the road would double in value. If you think the North Loop is amazing today, just imagine it without a freeway causeway hanging over it like a rusty guillotine. “HERC Burner Lofts” anyone?

Letting go is hard to do. When freeway teardowns have been tried in other cities, they’ve been surprisingly successful. All three of these so-called freeways were bad ideas. With a little bit of leadership and creativity, we could correct our mistakes.

This post was written by Bill Lindeke and originally published on Follow on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 06/19/2013 - 12:46 pm.

    Important Correction

    The 4th St causeway on-ramps were not part of the 394 project, as it turns out. As discussed in the comments on the original article, they were part of the Northside I-94 segment, significantly prior to the construction of 394.

    (That said, the 394 onramps have similar problems as they come into the North Loop.)

  2. Submitted by Davis Hal on 06/19/2013 - 01:10 pm.

    Ayd Mill

    As an extremely occasional user, I am charmed by Ayd Mill Road. But I see it’s relative impracticability.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/19/2013 - 01:16 pm.

    Just one correction

    Hiawatha was never a “freeway”, it was part of Hwy 55. It was redesigned in the 60s, but it took almost 30 years to complete the re-construction. Some of the original designs had eliminated some of the stop light in an effort to shorten the time between downtown and the airport, but in the end the only light that was eliminated was the parkway light. That intersection was eliminated and replaced with a tunnel. Ironically, the number of accidents along the corridor has actually increased since the project completion, and the downtown to airport drive – time is no shorter. In fact it got longer for a while there because of snafu’s related to the lights and the light rail.

    I agree, turn it into a blvd, put some curves into it, make part of a neighborhood.

    Speaking of neighborhoods, one of the funnier predictions contained in the reroute environmental impact statement was that neighborhood cohesiveness was INCREASE as a result of the new and improved hwy. Ha!

    Regarding the 394 recommendation, I think your forgetting that those long bridges also connect 394 to 94. You don’t want to cut that connection and you don’t want it at street level, so you’re always going to have a bridge there.

  4. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 06/19/2013 - 07:32 pm.

    And don’t forget the ‘burbs!

    This one is outside Minneapolis proper, but surely the complicated on-off ramps for Cedar Lake Road off Highway 100 deserve mention. Coming from the south, a looooong exit ramp takes you past Benilde St. Margaret’s School and two intersections before you reach the abrupt and counterintuitive exit to Cedar Lake Road proper. Getting back on to go south requires another long loop from the other direction. Navigating this area takes a good map or GPS and several tries before one gets used to it. And it’s ugly as sin. The only good thing to say about the extended on-off is that it does tend to cause people to slow down (but not nearly enough.

  5. Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/19/2013 - 09:37 pm.

    I would think 610

    Would be considered the last “proper freeway” constructed in the metro, considering its latest stretch was added what, 2 years ago? Perhaps the author implies a less expansive definition of “Twin Cities” than is the common vernacular for regional residents?

  6. Submitted by Todd Adler on 06/20/2013 - 03:13 pm.


    The westbound entrance ramps onto 394 from downtown is one big clusterduck during rush hour. In the area you have no less than five lanes of traffic that are all trying to either merge or cars shift lanes–all in the span of a block or two. That whole mess needs to be rethunk, redone, or plowed under as it’s a testament to driver’s skills that there aren’t more accidents in the area and traffic somehow manages to move. It’s gotten so bad of late that I’ve ditched the car altogether and now bike into work.

  7. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 07/09/2013 - 11:51 am.


    I appreciate Minnpost’s approval of your use of the proper terminology here. Well done internet!

    Also, it’s nice to see so many people agreeing with the idea. It’s time to start thinking beyond cars, and really decide whether we want our streets to be spaces to pass through, or places to stop and enjoy.

  8. Submitted by Bruce Jacobs on 07/09/2013 - 11:35 pm.

    Ayd Mill Road

    Sorry Bill

    You should have seen the Lexington/Randolph intersection before Kelly finally re-connected Ayd Mill to 35E. It was a constant mess.

    This simple re-connection was a huge boon to St. Paul, IMHO, especially the residents who live on Lexington north of Randolph.

    The reason Snelling/Selby is a mess now is because the Hamline bridge is closed for reconstruction.

  9. Submitted by Eric Anondson on 07/12/2013 - 10:55 pm.

    More highways to consider closing.

    TH7/Cty25 between TH100 and Lake Street. There is no need for it to be as wide as it is, with a grass median separating the lanes, except that it is designed like it is as a relic of the old Belt Line highway. The good news is that as part of the light rail station area plan for the Belt Line Station, St Louis Park has tentatively shown designs to reclaim all that unused land, squeezing exactly this stretch of Cty25 down to scale more like Excelsior Blvd that runs parallel to the south. Tons of developable space becomes available for the LRT station area. Shrinking this down could help mitigate the feeding of traffic into Lake Street as folks are being slowed from highway speed on highway-like environment down to urban slow crawls on Lake Street.

    My second proposal, TH 121/Cty22 spur that links 35W and Lyndale. It could be one lane in each direction and a turn lane when needed. Tremendous amount of land gets reclaimed.

    A close call third proposal is Snelling Avenue from 694 to Rosedale. Snelling avenue is a strange case, thing is it doesn’t need to be designed in this stretch as a freeway but it is. I think people in Roseville and Arden Hills would deeply miss having this pocket highway in their middle. It sure could be made more compact though on the northern end near 694.

  10. Submitted by David Flynn-Pigeon on 07/22/2013 - 12:12 am.

    Reroute Mainline highways

    The I-94 designation could be moved to I-694 so traffic going through the cities are routed away from the downtowns. Even though MnDOT does not post the highway signs, this would still leave the US Highway 12 and 52 designations on the road so it would still be federally funded.

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