An interesting vote took place this week in Minneapolis City Hall that illustrates a lot of reasons why cities have been struggling in America today. Item #22 on the agenda for the Transportation and Public Works Committee, way down at the bottom of the list, was a resolution supporting the “35-W Access project.” The project is a large freeway expansion through the heart of South Minneapolis’s densest and poorest neighborhood. The project has sparked heated debate for a long time, and for good reason. The initial version was a half-billion dollar freeway widening that would have done little to improve quality of life in the surrounding neighborhood. The end result is better, at least so far. The committee offically supported the project on a 5-1 vote, with only the local councilmember voting in opposition.
But the interesting part of the story isn’t the final project, but rather what this process can tell us about how transportation politics in our core cities.
When Your Only Tool is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Freeway Onramp
Like most urban politics, the tale of Lake and 35W dives deep into the murk of urban legend. I certainly don’t know all the details. I do know that the area around Lake Street and the freeway is one of the poorest parts of the city, and absolutely one of the sites where urban planners have done the most damage. We’ve already covered the big-box travesty where Nicollet Avenue ought to be, but the shoehorning of Interstate 35W through this neighborhood back in the 60s was certainly just as harmful. In place of what used to be one of the densest commercial strips in the city, today you’ll find derilict brick buildings, windowless box development, drive-thru fast food, and dreadful pedestrian spaces surrounded by concrete bridges and sound barriers.
The area’s also home to one of the most diverse communities in the city, people who are underserved in all sorts of ways. This neighborhood has inadequate transit access, lacks green space, and has underfunded schools, but it’s home to vital Somali and Latino communities (among others). Walking through the neighborhood, you’re constantly surprised by what you find: great little shops, amazing food, and a rich arts community. The contrast between the bleak built environment and the generous social fabric couldn’t be more stark.
I don’t know all the details of the 35W expansion. As the story goes, back in the mid-2000’s someone at some transportation agencies started lobbying for an expansion of Interstate 35W through the area. Like all freeways, 35W is congested, and the recommended solution was adding more lanes. (Note: this doesn’t solve the problem.)
In addition, the current layout of Lake Street and 35W is “incomplete,” in that it doesn’t have all four sides of the cloverleaf. From a traffic perspective, it’s not an efficient design, and forces drivers to spend an extra few minutes on local streets to get to their destinations.
As the city’s recently approved resolution describes, the proposed 2007 project was extremely expensive:
Before 2007 the 35W Transit Access Project had grown to include mainline freeway expansion from 42nd Street to the 94 Commons corridor; replacement of nine bridges in the 35W corridor between Franklin Avenue and 38th Street; movement of freeway ramps from 35th and 36th Streets to 38th Street; and the addition of an entrance ramp from Lake Street to 35W northbound, an exit ramp from 35W southbound to Lake Street, and an exit ramp from 35W northbound to 28th Street; and provision for a potential future transit station, all at a cost of more than $500 million, and the City’s only option was to accept or reject the entire project.
Despite the $10M federal earmark (a tiny fraction of the cost), the city chose to reject the plan. Instead, Minneapolis asked city staff to come up with alternatives for the corridor that centered on transit.
The current resolution is a result of that work. Instead of being a half-billion dollar freeway expansion, half of the proposed MN-DOT project is a BRT station for Lake Street along the freeway, along the lines of the BRT station at 46th. The rest of the project are a two (or three, depending) new onramps for the interstate. It’s certainly better than the original proposal, but the better transit access will certainly come at the expense of quality of life for people in the neighborhood, who will be flooded with more cars speeding off the freeway, more inhumane concrete walls, more pollution, and increased auto-oriented development pressure. It’s what they call a pyrrhic victory.
Still, we can draw some lessons from this moment. It’s a good example of how transportation politics plays out in American cities today.
Lesson #1) A city’s main leverage is to say “No”
When faced with a big-dollar federal or state tranposrtation project, the main piece of leverage that a city has is its approval. Technically, outside agencies can’t make cities approve projects. For example, the tiny city of Oak Park Heights had to sign off recently on the hugely expensive Stillwater Bridge-to-nowhere project. If they had said “No,” the bridge wouldn’t be built. (Of course, there’s tremendous pressure with projects like these, because so much money is at stake; $700M buys you a lot of construction jobs. Barring a fit of Lake Elmo-esque pique, there’s no way that a tiny city like Oak Park Heights would politically block a huge project like that.)
Minneapolis, on the other hand, has a bit more leverage. As a large, politically connected city, they have a bit more room to negotiate with state and federal transportation agencies. Still, the fact remains that the main way cities can affect transportation planning is by being negative, by saying “no” to a freeway or saying “no” to a project. It drastically limits urban possibilities.
For example, Minneapolis has lots of good tranposrtation ideas. I’m sure that if offered $10M in a federal earmark for transportation improvements for Lake Street, Councilmember Lilligren would be thrilled. Cities are overflowing with great ideas that need funding. See for example, their suggestion at the end of this week’s resolution:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City of Minneapolis commits to collaborating with Hennepin County, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and Metro Transit to develop and deliver related improvements in South Minneapolis neighborhoods, such as traffic calming measures, including the potential conversion of one-way streets to two-way streets; and enhancements to the transit rider experience, including potential improvements to transit shelters in the area as soon as possible.
As it is, these kinds of projects rarely receive outside money. All Minneapolis can do is to say “No”, and hold out for a better offer. Meanwhile, federal freeway dollars hang overhead like a zepplin.
Lesson #2) The Devil is in the Details
It’s worth remembering that the final outcome of the Lake Street freeway project is yet to come. The federal earmark only pays a small fraction of the cost, and the rest of the money has to come from some mix of state and local dollars. The exact ratio of those dollars – for example, who will pay for stormwater mitigation costs – will be a big factor in deciding whether or not this project was good for Minneapolis.
The design details, too, are up in the air. The main undetermined detail is the $37M northbound freeway onramp. Building the additional onramp would require demolishing a bunch of houses in the neighborhood, and would only make it more difficult for pedestrians to walk down Lake Street.
At this point, answers to these questions are unclear. They’ll be decided by engineers at the state or county level, and Minneapolis might not have much influence on how the details shake out. These details might make all the difference.
Lesson #3) Changes to Transportation Priorities have to be System-Wide
This kind of project, and this kind of debate, reveals the immense complexity of our transportation system. The way that federal funding works, attached by a great many strings, means that cities generally have little flexibilty. Priorities set by the federal government – for example, the desire to boost the economy through new home and car sales – trickle all the way down to set the landscape for state and local debates. You wind up with huge amounts of money being spent on big freeway expansions like this one (see also, the Stillwater Bridge, or the 35E onramp expansion in St Paul). Meanwhile, maintenance costs are underfunded and transit agencies make cuts every year. Former Congressman Oberstar’s $25M earmark for nonmotorized transportation sparked huge changes for the whole Twin Cities metro. Imagine if cities had access to that kind of money, on their own terms, on a regular basis.
The future of the Lake Street project has yet to be determined. Given the current funding structures, and the way that local governments have to awkwardly dance around federal and state departmental priorities, Minneapolis probably did better than expected. Compared to the original proposal, the plan that was passed is a vast improvement.
Still it’s nice to pause and imagine what the future might look like if cities could be more affirmative with their transportation dollars, if they had more control over the details of projects. Given the VMT plateau, the current fiscal climate, and the future of energy prices, our cities sorely need to change their priorities. This year’s stream of big-dollar freeway expansion projects shows that there’s still a long way to go.