MnDOT and Saint Paul’s Apology Doesn’t Change Anything

(No Exit) Arrogant PaternalismOn July 17, The Minnesota Department of Transportation and Saint Paul mayor Chris Coleman apologized for bulldozing the Rondo neighborhood of Saint Paul to build Interstate 94. Beginning in 1958, the freeway destroyed nearly a thousand homes and businesses and it displaced thousands of people at the core of a predominantly African American neighborhood. It also split the neighborhood in two, polluting it with noise, particulate air-pollution, and high-speed traffic. Fifty years later, the Rondo community still hasn’t fully recovered.

Unfortunately, The Coleman/MnDOT apology for Interstate 94 is not a “Legal” apology, meaning MnDOT and the city of Saint Paul are not planning to financially compensate all the families and businesses who were displaced or destroyed by the freeway. It’s more like the apology Robert McNamara gave for the Vietnam War or that Bill Clinton gave to Guatemala for the US overthrow of their government in 1954, an overthrow that led to the murder of at least a hundred thousand people and forty years of civil war.

The apology also doesn’t necessarily mean that MnDOT or the city of Saint Paul have learned any lessons. The DOT has been building and widening freeways at a steady pace since I-94 was completed in 1968. In the 1980s, they damaged the West Seventh Street neighborhood and much of downtown with I-35E. In the 1990s, MnDOT built Highway 55, which required one of the largest law-enforcement actions in Minnesota history to dislodge anti-highway protestors. In the last fifteen years, they’ve widened I-35E, I-35W, the Highway 62 “Crosstown Commons” and the Lafayette Bridge …and they’re still trying to finish the 1960 “Ayd Mill Connector Freeway.

Some in the community are now calling for I-94 to be covered over with a park or real estate development. When the public wants to bury something in a tunnel, that’s a good indicator that whatever they want to bury was a bad idea and never should have been built in the first place. Other folks would like to see I-94 made into a narrower boulevard, forcing thru drivers to use the outer beltways or actually live in the Twin Cities instead of Wisconsin.

In the wake of its Rondo non-apology, MnDOT is starting a two year study of I-94 and the bridges over it. To the community, that means an opportunity for covering or “capping” the freeway and calming or modifying exits and on-ramps to lower vehicle speeds and make nearby neighborhoods more pedestrian friendly.

To MnDOT, the study means something very different. On a recent Minnesota Public Radio show, the MnDOT representative Brian Isaacson implied that the thrust of the study would be an origin-destination study of “who’s using (the freeway) and how,” and bringing back shoulder lanes that existed on 94 in the wake of the I-35 Bridge collapse. He strongly implied that MnDOT wants to add MnPass lanes, bus lanes or regular lanes, just like they’ve recently done to both I-35E and I-35W at a combined cost of over a half billion dollars and elimination of the Gateway Trail Bridge and a bike/pedestrian underpass.

Neither of those projects significantly helped to reconnect severed neighborhoods and neither one meaningfully enhanced nearby pedestrian or bicycling environments. I’d like to hope that future MnDOT changes to I-94 will be better but, based on the agency’s recent history, I’m not optimistic.

When you apologize for something but keep doing it, it’s not really an apology. It’s a sign of insincerity or psychosis. MnDOT only knows how to do one thing really well — build freeways. It’s “sorry” if a neighborhood was obliterated, but I believe they are going to keep paving over our cities until people force them to stop.

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19 Responses to MnDOT and Saint Paul’s Apology Doesn’t Change Anything

  1. Ken Avidor
    Ken Avidor August 25, 2015 at 9:26 am #

    Excellent as always, Andy.

  2. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele August 25, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    Excellent. Thanks for writing this.
    While I’d like to see a full reorientation of land use and mobility such that removing I-94 makes sense…
    Here’s one idea that may be possible and would start to atone for these past failures:

    Step 1: Move the I-94 designation to I-694 around the northern beltway from Brooklyn Center to Woodbury. Yes, this may necessitate some spot capacity increases along that corridor, but hopefully not much.
    Step 2: Toll the existing I-94, or at least the segment between the downtowns, using dynamic pricing.
    Step 3: Use any surplus revenues from these tolls to lessen the impact of the corridor over time, such as a fund to build freeway caps.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary August 25, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

      Tolling seems like a good idea, especially on this particular highway — but since it’s already built, why move the interstate designation? To make tolling easier, or to reduce through traffic?

      My understanding is the FHWA prefers state governments not toll, but I would think moving an interstate freeway to no longer (technically) run through two major cities it serves would be a bigger hurdle.

      I would note that there is already signage to encourage trucks to use 694 instead of 94.

      • Adam Froehlig
        Adam Froehlig August 26, 2015 at 8:00 am #

        If we had a heavy volume of through traffic, moving the Interstate designation might make sense as the through traffic would tend to continue to follow the primary signed route…there’s precedent for that in Nashville, TN and Greensboro, NC. But I-94 really doesn’t have a lot of through traffic so it would have little impact here except confusing a lot of local drivers.

        Tolling may be a good idea, but as I noted below in my own response, current Federal law prohibits tolling all lanes of I-94.

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary August 26, 2015 at 8:06 am #

          What’s been the procedure for other states to toll interstate highways, Adam? (Illinois certainly being the first that comes to mind.)

          Did they just get in the game earlier? Or did they need to advocate for special exemptions on the federal level?

          The issue doesn’t seem insurmountable. But if the political will doesn’t even exist on non-interstate highways yet, that’s probably an issue to address. A route like TH 100 might be a good route, since it’s a state highway, and there are no good alternative routes that might see penny-pinching drivers spill off into.

          The policy also could lead to a “no new (free) roads” attitude, which might work on existing roadways where more lanes are desired. Certainly, if the long-term vision for the 494-5 commons is 5 lanes in either direction, it would be a decent compromise to have 2 of 5 tolled/MnPASS.

          • Adam Froehlig
            Adam Froehlig August 26, 2015 at 11:06 am #

            Much of the tollway system around Chicago predates the Interstate system and so was grandfathered into the Interstate system (same with toll roads in IN, OH, PA, and several East Coast states). I believe I-88 and I-355 required special legislation, but the type of legislation that allowed such later toll roads to be added became mainstream with MAP-21.

            • Matt Steele
              Matt Steele August 26, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

              Laws can change easily, especially spot changes championed by local reps. That’s the same way federal highway funds subsidized the ABC ramps to the tune of $100 million in the mid-80s.

              • Adam Froehlig
                Adam Froehlig August 26, 2015 at 7:03 pm #

                This isn’t the ’80s and ’90s, when special riders and pork projects were the norm. Do you HONESTLY think this is going to be an easy change in the current Congress (or even a future Congress? It’s been 10 years since they last were able to get a long-term transportation bill out on time!

            • Wayne August 26, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

              Then you’ve also got states like MA where the masspike (I-90) was only supposed to be tolled until it was paid off and they basically said “nah, we’ll keep doing it” after that point and got away with it. Then again the big dig will probably never be paid off, even though it only sort of involves a little bit of an extension of I-90 to the airport (which made a lot of people mad because most of the work was on I-93 which serves northern and southern suburbs who don’t pay tolls on that road, while western suburbs continue to pay the tolls).

  3. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman August 25, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    So badly needed capacity expansions like the new Lafayette Bridge lanes that take up none or very little additional ROW are the same as a whole freeway through Rondo (which I admit should have gone in the rail corridor). I think Mn/DOT is apologizing for building the road where it was build, not for building roads.

    And I don’t see that many Wisconsin license plates on I-94.

    • Wayne August 25, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

      maybe when you get asthma or cancer from living directly next to a highway with increased traffic you’ll see the downside.

  4. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig August 26, 2015 at 7:58 am #

    Andy sounds very bitter here. Shouldn’t let emotion get into things as it tends to draw people’s attention away from the facts (and I expect Matt to pounce on me for that but he does it too).

    Was it a bad idea to route I-94 through Rondo? Yes.

    Is it too late to change things? I’d say yes. Matt’s idea MIGHT have eventual traction, but I think we’ll all be dead before the region would get to that point.

    Is dismantling 94 the right thing to do? Not without spending a billion dollars plus elsewhere to beef up alternative routings and alternative modes of transportation. The VAST majority of I-94 traffic is local or metro area traffic. There really isn’t a whole lot of through traffic and MnDOT has long posted signs for through drivers to use 694 as a “Twin Cities Bypass” (as Sean noted).

    Should capping I-94 be considered? Sure. But as I noted in a recent post thread (the I-94 podcast), the more you try to put on the cap, the more reinforced that cap needs to be and thus the more expensive it’ll be. And it’s not a linear increase in cost either…it all depends on the mass/weight of what you’re trying to put up top. A park would be far cheaper than some sort of building in this regard.

    Should I-94 be tolled? Perhaps at some point in the future. But current federal law prohibits what Matt would like to do. As things stand now, tolls could only be added to I-94 on new lanes (existing lanes must be kept free). MnDOT could theoretically add tolls to the river bridge or the Lowry Hill Tunnel, but only if the tolls were used for a rehabilitation or reconstruction project on the bridge or tunnel.

    • Wayne August 26, 2015 at 8:39 am #

      So the way the federal law works is that they’ll fund a big expensive piece of infrastructure and then say “have fun paying upkeep on that, but you can’t use tolls to do it!”? Well ok, thanks feds! Does this mean metro transit can’t use fare revenue to do rail maintenance work? Because that’s pretty much what the equivalent is.

      • Adam Froehlig
        Adam Froehlig August 26, 2015 at 11:14 am #

        Construction, maintenance, and upkeep have always been left to the states. The main Federal involvement

        As evidenced by Federal law on the matter, Congressional thinking has been that if a constructed road was paid for via tax revenue, that’s how it should be maintained. Though we’ve seen a softening of that viewpoint with the HOV to HO/T conversions.

        The states also receive federal highway funding from FHWA that in some cases is intended for maintenance and upkeep, but the states have a lot of flexibility in how/where they spend that funding.

        Regarding your last bit, Metro Transit doesn’t use fare revenue to do rail maintenance work because all of their fare revenue (and then some) goes to employee compensation. Roughly 80% of Metro Transit’s operating expenses falls under “salarly, benefits, and wages”. And their farebox recovery ratio doesn’t even come close to that percentage. One could argue the principle of “pooled resources” and argue that some fare revenue pays for rail maintenance, but the bottom line is that Metro Transit needs far more funding than they get in fare revenue just to pay their employees, before they even get to the maintenance expenses.

        A far better analogy would be a bike path that received state/federal funding in order to build, but it’s up to the city/jurisdiction and its property taxes to pay for upkeep of that path.

        • Adam Froehlig
          Adam Froehlig August 26, 2015 at 11:14 am #

          Delete “The main Federal involvement”. That part wasn’t intended in my response.

        • Wayne August 26, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

          Ok but gas taxes and other user fees don’t cover road expenses either, so why the additional limitation in how we pay for that? I don’t think you really rebutted my point, just deflected to how user fees don’t cover costs–but they don’t for roads either. My point was that there’s no particular specific rule against how metro transit does its accounting and how it applies those fares they collect, but for roads its mired in a mess of accounting rules and political shenanigans to shift the costs around endlessly.

          And yes, let’s go with the bike path analogy then. There’s nothing (other than the sheer impracticality of it) that would keep anyone from tolling the bike path to pay for its upkeep, is there? Why is that any different?

          • Adam Froehlig
            Adam Froehlig August 26, 2015 at 7:09 pm #

            Believe it or not, there are plenty of hidden transit funding shenanigans too, especially regarding Federal transit dollars and where/how they can be spent.

  5. Wayne August 26, 2015 at 8:29 am #

    So we’re deleting comments now?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke August 26, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

      We have a volunteer moderator team, but rarely delete comments unless they’re egregious. Probably can count the # of times on one hand.