What would make I-94 better? | MPR


I-94 - October 11, 2008, during restriping. After I-35W Bridge reopening.

I-94 – October 11, 2008, during restriping. After I-35W Bridge reopening.

Streets.mn writer Bill Lindeke was on MPR today (August 20) to discuss I-94.

LISTEN Rethinking Interstate 94


  • Brian Isaacson: I-94 Project Manager, MnDOT
  • Bill Lindeke: One of the editors of transportation blog Streets.mn; member of the Saint Paul city planning commission

50 thoughts on “What would make I-94 better? | MPR

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Summary? Hmm.

    Lowry Hill Tunnel will never be widened. Caps are intriguing, be they lined with shops or green space. Just adding lanes won’t help congestion, maybe car pool/bus/MN Pass lanes would be considered though. An effort needs to be made to link either side of the highway for safer bike and ped crossing. Rondo ought to be repaired in any way no matter how tiny. Network effects will need looking at when we consider changing/adding/removing access points. Soundwalls, make them better at doing what they do, and maybe consider getting dual-use out of them like growing productive vines on them (hops, grapes, etc).

    Maybe a thing or two I forgot.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I was disappointed that you were so dismissive of the idea of removing it. Feasible in our current political climate? Of course not. Worthy thought experiment? Absofreakinglutely.

        1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

          That’s fair to point out it should be in a discussion. Some people may think it unthinkable and I can agree, it seems unthinkable. But why not finish the thought exercise in public?

          Without the wide scar what would we need to move that many people? If we’re looking at the network effects of local vs. pass through drivers and access points on the corridor, one extreme is the effects of entire freeway removal. The ultimate in urban fantasy maps.

          It wouldn’t just be filled in, there is local use. So what would go back in would need a local street component. Spitballing a guess would need capacity for 20-25,000 local drivers, do it with upgraded BRT service.

          The pass through driving coming from outside the 494/694 loop going to outside the opposite side will have alternate choices right now.

          Like with the 35W bridge, a lot of driving “just worked out” in that while we don’t know full details of how everyone dealt with it we know many of us decided to drive at different times of the day off peak hours. Its absence will reduce induced demand significantly.

          For commuting into the city, seriously upgraded transit beyond the Green Line as we know it. With the Green Line functioning more like a local service line, could we build a higher capacity express rail commuter route through the ROW adjacent to the local street that would be put back. It puts a Midtown LRT linking Uptown around to the Prospect Park area a higher priority, maybe linking to whatever express transit service is put back into the 94 ROW. Without robust transit improvements this whole removal can’t happen.

          In time people driving commutes, for example, from Golden Valley to Maplewood, Woodbury to Minnetonka, Saint Louis Park to Saint Paul can drive around slightly longer or they sort themselves out by moving closer. Or use mass transit.

          Maybe we put in something like that elevated bike circle like we see amazing photos of, with major protected bike routes.

          We get a nearly fully stitched back Rondo. On ramp/off ramps aren’t bike-ped death zones. Livability in neighborhoods along the route climbs, with all the health and wealth that entails. People adjust their routines because the convenience the freeway made available gave us induced demand. Land along the route is now open for development. The transit network becomes more robust making multi modal a greater reality.

            1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

              The value in keeping Ayd Mill Road is that it should allow us to turn back Snelling south of I-94 and then rebuild as a local street with 2ish narrow lanes.

              1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

                I think there’s a lot better chance of turning AMR into a park than reducing Snelling to 2 lanes. Unlike Snelling, AMR is completely controlled by the city.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Milwaukee has a noted car-hating mayor and the freeway removed, although useful to get to downtown, was a dead end that was supposed to be part of a larger freeway that never got built (kind of like the Embacadero and Central Freeways). Not the most heavily used freeway in the metro, like I-94 by the tunnel is. Meanwhile they’ve invested a jillion dollars in rebuilding the Marquette and Zoo Interchanges.

            1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

              Past tense. John Norquist was mayor from 1988 to 2004, and left a really great legacy. His stamp of urbanism is everywhere in that city, and mostly good; freeway removal, an art museum well connected to public space and the grid, the Riverwalk, to name a few. One of his big regrets is not getting the Brewers to build their stadium downtown.

              And yes, the freeway removed in Milwaukee was a really useless stub, but some of the development that has resulted in the area since is really great.

              But it goes beyond that. Visit Milwaukee and buildings constructed in the last 20 years relate well to the street, and the streets themselves that have been rebuilt generally are better public spaces. I don’t think I’m seeing this through rose colored glasses.

              The larger point is an elected official insisted on better urbanism, and the result is there for all to enjoy. Let’s hope we can look at Minneapolis in a decade and say “this project turned out so much better because of the leadership of Lisa Bender.”

          1. Wayne

            Actually maybe there’s something to that … can we remove the 394 spur into downtown that’s also a dead-end part of a highway that was never built? Low-hanging fruit is what we love here, and that’s about as low as it gets.

            1. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

              I’m no fan of the trench, but a freeway spur that that feeds right into giant parking ramps without congesting city streets first strikes me as an okay thing to have, if we’re honest and admit to ourselves that lots and lots of people will still be driving into downtown for a few more decades at least.

              However, that crappy ramp that wastes half a block of Washington Ave frontage can go posthaste.

              1. Wayne

                Yeah I was thinking mostly of that. But if you narrowed or eliminated the chunk east of 94 you could probably make enough room for an actual multi-platform rail station for a set of commuter rail lines. Not that it would ever happen here.

                1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

                  The I-94 viaduct stub has long been discussed, and likely will be again (before) the bridges need to be replaced. I’d say conversion to a multiway boulevard is possible, but whether the political will exists when the time comes remains to be seen.

                  1. Wayne

                    Then why did they tear out all the houses along the railroad line leading to nicollet island? They were really going to do a meandering route around downtown and use all that extra land instead of going straight through? God, freeway planners back then were really terrible.

    1. Wayne

      As much as I personally love the idea, in a city where removing a few parking spaces for a bike lane is a sign of the apocalypse and met with such vehement resistance, I really think it’s outside the realm of even remote possibility.


  3. Wayne

    Here’s a radical idea for inner-city highways: STOP EXPANDING THEM
    Also, seriously, cap them yesterday. Restore the destroyed street grid as much as possible, even if only for pedestrians and bikes. Stop letting them remain scars on the fabric of the center cities. They’ve carried enough water for the suburban development model for too long now.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      The nice MnDOT guy and I chatted about different caps for a while after the show. They can be extremely expesnive to build and maintain, e.g. Seattle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeway_Park apparently annual maintenance is a lot) or Boston (speaks for itself https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Dig).

      But the estimate on the Columbus one is only $10M, and the engineer was saying that it’s innovative in how it is built, basically just two extra bridges next to the road bridge (or something) instead of a tunnel.

      In other words, MnDOT seemed open to the ideas. A lot depends on the detail and financing.

      1. Wayne

        Oh I lived in and around Boston during the Big Dig (I even got to tour it on foot before it was turned forever into place for cars!) but it’s not a great analogue for this at all. The soil conditions and existing infrastructure it was build around (and over and under) are why it was such a beast. Not to mention a couple hundred years of buried history.

        I know it’s still not cheap, but just capping an existing sunken highway is far easier than digging a new hole for it. For most of the way you can quite literally just deck over it and plant some grass, maybe trees on the edges where the embankments used to be and there’s room for the roots. In areas with actual dense development needs you can sell the air rights to developers and use the proceeds to pay for most of the rest of the decking. If you do all the retaining walls and structural work ahead of time it requires a lot less investment to do the extra work to put buildings instead of parks over it.

          1. Wayne

            Something I’ve found with engineers (not necessarily highway engineers, I’ve known them in other domains) is that anything they haven’t done is really hard and expensive and anything they know well is the best way. I know there’s a natural tendency towards being conservative in that field because a lot is on the line so the familiar way is safest and if you try something new and it blows up in your face you’ve got hell to pay.

            But I’m sure it *is* expensive when compared to the normal schlock they build at MnDOT. A few flyovers and some bridge replacements aren’t exactly exciting or pushing any bounds of creativity or design. They follow a manual for most of their job, come on. Anything slightly different than an off-the-shelf design is going to cost more than 99% of the projects they do.

            1. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

              This is certainly the case with power engineers, pretty much for the reason you stated. Radical new designs are awesome when they work as intended, nightmares when they don’t.

              That being said, gotta break out of the box sometime.

          2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

            Depends on what you want to use it for. A park wouldn’t be all that expensive (and we have precedent up in Duluth). But if you wanted to put a building, especially a multistory building, on that cap, then yes it would have to be seriously reinforced and that would drive the cost up considerably.

            1. Wayne

              Right, but starting out with a park is a nice interim approach. There’s probably only a few places where land is valuable enough nearby to justify a building on a cap, but if you already took the room and made the preparations required for a park cap, converting it to a structural one would be easier and cheaper than starting from scratch.

            2. Wayne

              Also I find it telling that one of the only significant cases of structures capping a freeway we have here is parking ramps over 394. So we can cap for huge parking structures, but nothing else. : /

                1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                  While having suburban commuters leave their cars on the edge of the city seems preferable to having them store their cars in the middle of the city, that seems like a false choice. Also, the federal government is subsidizing the car storage habits of commuters based on that false choice.

                  “Interstate funding was sought to fund the project. After being rejected by federal highway officials, Senator Dave Durenburger (R–Minnesota) shepherded the proposal through Congress and got the project authorized in the interstate bill for that year, acquiring $100 million in federal funding for the ramps and skyways. Construction began in 1986.” -Politics and Freeways: Building the Twin Cities Interstate System, by Patricia Cavanaugh

                2. Wayne

                  If downtown streets weren’t a bunch of giant one-way feeders to highways the ramps would make a lot more sense. If the ‘downtown’ exit from 35W fed into a ramp instead of straight into the street grid, that would be fantastic. Add another one or two to the east side of downtown and I think it would be worthwhile, but only if we did a lot of calming to the downtown streets. As it is now we have the worst of both worlds–a ring of highway and auto infrastructure that disconnects downtown from the rest of the city and a bunch of terrible streets that are dangerous and unpleasant for pedestrians.

                  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                    Let’s just say that I don’t have quite as dim a view of downtown sidewalks as you do, even if there are obvious improvements that could be made.

                    Regardless, the 394 ramps are/were a step in the right direction, especially as I don’t think 1986 was really a time when not living in the suburbs and commuting by car was viewed as a realistic option that many would exercise.

                    Heck, it still isn’t.

                    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                      It’s true, not living in the suburbs and commuting by car is not viewed as a realistic option that many would exercise when spent decades and hundreds of billions of dollars into making living in the suburbs and commuting by car as the default option while simultaneously forcefully eliminating any alternative. #joysofreality

                    2. Wayne

                      So how about we finally spend some money on making it a viable option instead of a second-rate crazytown thing that only poors and millenials would choose?

                    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                      There’s a lot more to be done, but building two light rail lines is a big step toward spending some money on it. The next two will be as well, even if they are pretty darn imperfect as planned.

                      But the biggest factor, letting people build housing within walking distance of stuff, doesn’t really require much in the way of public money.

                    4. Wayne

                      Here’s a problem I see: As the inner-city density increases so to transportation problems in those areas. Our current bus system within the city is already stressed to the breaking point (and given the slightest traffic jam or weather event it does break down), but we’re not investing substantially in anything that will support the density we’re trying to build. You can’t just throw down thousands of apartments in a small area and call it a day–you need to change how you apportion your road space and transportation resources. We need better (wider) sidewalks with fewer obstacles and interruptions. We need safer street crossings. We need better (more frequent and reliable) bus service. We need actual bus shelters. Few if any of these things are being pushed in any meaningful way and that’s going to hurt everyone down the road when you’ve got thousands of new people living in the same old space designed for cars and never updated.

                    5. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                      Of course, we are changing how we apportion road space – by adding bike facilities.

                      As I said, I don’t really agree with you about downtown sidewalks, which are mostly fine. I’ll grant you that the sidewalk on Willow btw Grant and the Greenway is too narrow, but that’s about the only one that springs to mind. I think sidewalk cafes are a good thing, even if the seating at Brits means a narrower through way and/or the Local means you have to take a few steps to the left to get around it. I don’t think a “good” sidewalk is an empty one.

                      Where the bulk of the new housing is going (North Loop, Uptown, Downtown and eventually HenCen or whatever we decided to call it), sidewalks are nowhere near capacity (although the latter needs major traffic calming).

                      There’s more to be done (there always will be), but I just don’t see the doom and gloom you predict.

      2. Keith Morris

        Just think of how many caps we could do for $10 million a pop. Also, we could cap new pedestrian and bike only bridges across 94: entire blocks of retail that are car-free and no need to have an Open Streets event only once a year to keep cars off.

  4. Emily Metcalfe

    I live near the Lex bridge over 94. Here are my 2 cents:

    Separate St Anthony and Concordia Aves from the freeway exit ramps. Make them each one lane with protected bike lanes. Make the freeway exit ramps single lane and have them intersect the street in a roundabout with the north/south street and St Anthony or Concordia. Also, narrow Lex (and the other north/south routes) to 2 lanes in each direction. Have generous pork chop islands and protections for bikers.

    Right now, the orientation of St Anthony and Concordia Aves is awful for both drivers and pedestrians.

  5. Paul Nelson

    Thank you. Some years ago I was casually proposing that I-94 be rebuilt to have additional and separate right-of-way for a walk/bike highway and a high speed rail corridor, by moving all of the traffic lanes and ramps to one side. There is room to do just that. Last fall I measured the I-94 width on the Griggs Bridge. Because the road is in a trench, I allowed for circa 25 feet on each side to accommodate retaining wall space or retain some embankment. The total width remaining was 335 feet, and all of the traffic lanes and all of the medians and ramps took up about 152 feet of the total 335 ft trench space. Moving the lanes and ramps to one side would result and enable the ramps to come up to the street on grade with sharper turns at the corners. This would be a traffic calming element. The 335 feet width extends for quite a distance through Saint Paul. While this would be a big project, and it would have been easier to build the road this way in the beginning, I think this is a reasonable approach to redesign I-94 for now and in the future. Thank you

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