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Linking the Twin Cities: In 1968 the attention was on I-94

On Dec. 9, 1968, a new 11-mile segment of Interstate 94, linking downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul, opened for the first time.

On Dec. 9, 1968, a new 11-mile segment of Interstate 94, linking downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul, opened for the first time.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When the $975 million Green Line LRT opens on Saturday, it will be the second time in nearly 50 years that the Twin Cities launched a massive public-works project aimed at connecting the metro region’s two urban centers.

On Dec. 9, 1968, a new 11-mile segment of Interstate 94, linking downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul, opened for the first time.

“It had taken 10 years, 20,816 tons of steel, 321,00 cubic yards of concrete and nearly $80 million to complete, the Minneapolis Tribune reported. “By making driving between Minneapolis and St. Paul — and points in between much faster and easier, the freeway may tend to melt the Twin Cities into more of a single metropolitan area.”

“Businessmen who frequently travel between the cities will save time, shoppers will be able to increase their bargain hunting area and some workers and get home earlier in the afternoon,” the paper observed.

‘No more joy in playing pass-the-truck’

Minneapolis Tribune columnist Robert T. Smith noted that the rivalry between Minneapolis and St. Paul was about to end. “The reason is something called I 94, which will permit St. Paul residents to get to Minneapolis in from 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how fast you drive,” Smith wrote, with more than a little tongue in cheek. “One thing I 94 will eliminate is that delightful three day trip to St. Paul and back via University Avenue. No more joy in playing pass-the-truck, no more that total feeling of frustration and exhaustion after those hours at the wheel. How many times have you gotten to Montgomery Wards and just given up. No more of that delicious sensation of defeat,” Smith observed.

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St. Paul Pioneer Press writer Robert Whereatt aimed a few humorous jabs of his own at I 94 when he wrote about the imminent opening of the new freeway link.

“Monday afternoon an $80 million concrete trail with a bewildering series of interchanges will open to drivers willing to risk travel between St. Paul and Minneapolis.” Whereatt reported.

“The I 94 loop-to-loop link, constructed on the proposition that people in one city wish to visit people in the other, has no less than 18 interchanges. At some of the intersections you can get on and off. At others you may be able to get off while traveling west, but you cannot get on and go west. At others, you can get off while traveling west, but on only if you chose to go east. The entire thing is baffling to the point where the State Highway Department’s public information in not quite sure of anything except that, with great ceremony, the long awaited roadway will open.”

Caravans met at the boundary line

In a ceremony reminiscent of the Transcontinental Railroad’s gold stake in 1869, caravans leaving from the both downtowns met at the boundary line between Minneapolis and St. Paul near the Highway 280-University Avenue. After speeches by various dignitaries including Minnesota Gov. Harold LeVander, Minneapolis Aquatennial Queen Janet Johnson and St. Paul Queen of the Snows Barbara Strobush tied a large ribbon across I-94 to symbolize the linkage of the two cities.

As the hoopla surrounding the opening of inter-city freeway continued, none of the journalists covering the event noted a more somber aspect of the highway project — the high price that some in the Twin Cites had been required to pay in order to make way for the ribbons of concrete connecting the two downtowns. The price was particularly high for many of St. Paul’s African-American residents who saw their Rondo neighborhood all but obliterated by the massive highway development.

In succeeding years, as neighborhood activists became increasingly aware of the potential impacts of the highway system on their community, grass-roots protests forced highway planners to scuttle some segments of the Twin Cities freeway system and redesign other segments to make them less intrusive.

Now, in 2014, transit advocates are applauding an LRT link that they hope will take cars off the often-congested interstate running between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. But the cost of this ambitious new transit could hardly be imagined when I-94 opened in 1968.