Interstate 94 between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul is an urban transportation nightmare from which its neighbors struggle to wake up. Fortunately, the Biden administration has launched a new grant program to mitigate damage from transportation infrastructure, including highways. The Reconnecting Communities Pilot program seems tailor-made to help the Twin Cities design a solution to our highway problem.
Timing is crucial. To be eligible for a scholarship, Minneapolis and St. Paul officials must apply by October 13 — just a month away. In addition, the 12-mile section of I-94 connecting the downtown area will be rebuilt in the coming years. This project determines the future of the corridor for the next half century. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is already considering several 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 have refused to work together to submit a coordinated planning proposal to address the entire project area.
Highways are a nationwide transportation strategy that should never have been built within city limits. Top cities in 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 every Twin Citian under the age of 50, I-94 has simply always been there, along with the pollution, noise, danger and disconnection.
But just because people are used to I-94 doesn’t mean it’s a good idea or a permanent feature. But highway departments do highways. Without intervention, we should be gearing up for plans for more lanes to rip through largely disinvested neighborhoods with bigger ramps and more complicated interchanges. Perhaps a few trees, public art, or a new bike or car pool lane will be built to make the expansion appear “just, green, and welcoming.”
Two community-based advocacy campaigns have sprung up to influence the outcome of the highway project. The fundamental goals of both groups are worthy, and the tactics and results of their ideas should be determined using a jointly submitted planning proposal.
ReConnect Rondo (RCR) is a group of black leaders working with MnDOT, elected officials, and community agencies to take advantage of the I-94 project to shut down Rondo, St. Paul’s historically black community that was physically and economically torn apart by the highway, to breathe new life into. generations of residents. RCR’s proposal currently focuses on building a developed bridge across two to three blocks of a rebuilt highway. Their focus is limited to the Rondo neighborhood, but their fundamental purpose is essential. Restitution for descendants of Rondo and physical reconnection for current residents are vital. Ideally, with the help of the federal grant, their proposed solution could be revised to also resolve the highway’s terrible pollution and health impacts on the Rondo community — things a lid wouldn’t address.
Another group, made up of transportation, neighborhood, climate justice and health advocacy groups, and coordinated by Our Streets Minneapolis, is focused on repairing damage along the entire 7.5-mile stretch of I-94. They have proposed replacing the freeway with Twin Cities Boulevard – filling the gaping ditch and reconnecting surrounding communities with dedicated thoroughfare, bicycle and slower traffic lanes in addition to new affordable, anti-displacement housing, commercial space and parkland. The initial Twin Cities Boulevard schemes—not a pipe dream, but vetted by a transportation engineer with experience in highway replacement—show a green ribbon connecting both cities and all adjacent neighborhoods, lined with the vitality of thousands of new homes and businesses today. the highway torments its neighbors.
St. Paul is willing to submit a federal grant proposal to study the Rondo land bridge. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and the Public Works Department have said they will sit out this year’s grant round to respect the RCR proposal.
But waiting is far from respectful in this case. It means losing the opportunity for critical, corridor-wide planning activities and real restorative justice for the entire project corridor. The thousands of Minneapolis and St. Paul residents living outside the proposed land bridge area will continue to be exposed to the highway’s air and noise pollution, health impacts, traffic and lockdown. These people, who have disproportionately low incomes and people of color, will be further marginalized.
The damage from I-94 should be analyzed as a continuum and not as a local problem. Funding from this year’s federal planning grant is more than adequate. It can and should be proposed and shared between Minneapolis and St. Paul for a coordinated community and technical review that answers key questions about both community-based proposals. Twin Cities transportation leaders can and should work together to build a healthy, connected community across the entire length of the I-94 project area.
Maria Morse Martic is the former Executive Director of Move Minneapolis, an original founder of HOURCAR.