On 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.