Prior Avenue and the Merriam Park Freeway Fight

Prior Avenue North of I-94, looking south across the overpass

Prior Avenue North of I-94, looking south across the overpass

If you’re riding a bicycle north or south in Saint Paul, Prior Avenue is one of the only nice ways to cross Interstate 94 and the Canadian Pacific rail line. There are several reasons for this. It has lower volumes of motor vehicles than many other streets and cars tend to drive slower. It’s more direct than some of the other routes and feels safer from crime, even at night. Best of all, it crosses the Freeway and CP Rail line on a level grade, so cyclists don’t have to go up any hills. For all these reasons, Prior is a very popular north-south bicycle route. In recognition of this, the city designated it a bikeway and, two years ago, striped bike lanes on it north of Marshall.

Compare Prior to some of the alternatives. Fairview Avenue descends precipitously under the freeway and CP Rail lines. The road surface at the bottom of this plunge is often flooded and forms a secluded underpass that is dark and creepy at night. If you elect to go on the sidewalks, you’re hemmed in by chain link fences and have little room to maneuver. If you go in the street, you have to ride next to high-speed, higher-volume car traffic, with bad sight lines and no bike lanes. Either way, you have to ride up a decent sized hill. The Aldine Bike and Pedestrian Bridge is narrow, secluded and indirect, requiring cutting back and forth through a couple of semi-industrial streets on the south side of the highway. The Snelling Avenue overpass is horrible, as is Cretin Avenue. Both have freeway ramps, six and eight lanes of high-speed traffic, and no bicycle accommodations.

Were it not for a priest and a large group of dedicated community activists, Prior Avenue might look a lot like Snelling and Cretin. From 1959 until 1962, these folks fought a huge battle with MnDOT’s predecessor “The Minnesota Department of Highways” to block freeway ramps at Prior. The story of this battle was featured in the Winter 2013 issue of Ramsey County History— a publication of the Ramsey County Historical Society. “Preserving a ‘Fine Residential District’: The Merriam Park Freeway Fight” is a superbly researched and well written story and I highly recommend that everyone read it. Ramsey County History does not put the full text of its articles online. So I obtained permission from the Historical Society and the article’s two authors Tom O’Connell and Tom Beer to post a PDF version for download.

The article goes into the history of Interstate 94, Merriam Park, and many of the players in the Prior Avenue fight. The community campaign was one of the first neighborhood efforts to resist a freeway in Saint Paul and one of the only ones to succeed. Reading the article, one is struck by what it took to stop this one little interchange. Community organizers needed strong support from an archbishop, prominent federal politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, and tactics like lining up 1,500 children along Prior Avenue from Saint Marks School, five blocks to the proposed freeway ramps in a protest that helped galvanize the neighborhood. Even with all this, the highway department refused to budge. They backed down only after three years of high-level, open political warfare. That’s how powerful highway agencies are.

After my last post about Snelling Avenue a few people asked me what I thought was needed to force MnDOT to improve Snelling for cyclists and pedestrians. Certainly we can pressure the legislature and governor to force MnDOT and local Public Works Departments to stop using “Level of Service” (for cars) as their most important street and road design metric (something that California just accomplished). We can also demand that cities and towns be given more ability to lower posted speed limits. However, when it comes to actually getting promised pedestrian and bicycle accommodations or stopping an Ayd Mill freeway, “The Merriam Park Freeway Fight” highlights what it takes to win– a mass mobilization of people and politicians, great organization and a willingness to spend years fighting for what you want. That’s an important lesson for politics and life.


Looking north on the Prior Avenue Overpass towards the CP Rail Bridge.

Looking north on the Prior Avenue Overpass towards the CP Rail Bridge.

The view west from the Prior Avenue overpass

The view west from the Prior Avenue overpass

Andy Singer

About Andy Singer

Andy Singer is doing his second tour as volunteer co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition. He works as a professional cartoonist and illustrator and has authored of four books including his latest, "Why We Drive," which examines environmental, land use and political issues in transportation. You can see more of his cartoons at

12 thoughts on “Prior Avenue and the Merriam Park Freeway Fight

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    It’s sort of a sunny irony for the current Minnesota Highway Department — since compared to the 1950s and 1960s, engineers now strongly prefer to have fewer access points on the mainline. Very close to both Cretin-Vandalia and Snelling, I can’t imagine engineers would even want ramps here today.

    Sometimes local citizens know what the engineers want before they do!

    1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      A couple of things here. First, you’re correct that spacing standards were looser back then. Second, there was a lot of pressure from politicians to get the highway engineers to add ramps at a number of locations, especially if there was a perception that it would improve access to stores and industrial areas.

      If I-94 were to have been built with today’s spacing standards, a Prior Ave interchange wouldn’t have even been a thought, and the ramps at Cretin would have likely wound up at Cleveland instead, as Cretin is a bit close to 280.

    2. Monte Castleman

      My understanding was that this would be instead of Cretin / Vandalia. It would have made it easier to access the neighborhood from MN 280, and might have relieved some of the traffic on Snelling being a bit closer. It’s not quite a mile from Snelling, but it’s exactly halfway in-between Snelling and MN 280

  2. paddy

    Thanks Andy.

    A great read this morning.

    And thanks for getting permission to post the Ramsey County Historical Society article. It was tremendous. 1500 kids at St Mark’s is amazing to consider.

  3. James

    Thank you for this post, it’s a wonderful read! I live in Merriam Park, between Cleveland and Prior, and had the construction happened as planned, my house would have surely been taken down. Thanks for the opportunity to learn a little more about my own neighborhood. Cheers.

  4. GlowBoy

    Wow, really interesting history. I haven’t used the Prior Ave bridge (closest I’ve come is Pelham Ave, as well as the Griggs Ave ped/bike bridge) so I’ll have to check it out.

    On a recent drive on I-94 across St. Paul, I happened to notice there are a lot of pedestrian passes, pretty much every half mile or so, and in the middle of nearly every superblock along the way: Aldine, Griggs, Chatsworth, Grotto, Mackubin.

    I also noticed that thanks to the freeway running down a ditch, nearly all of these cross at grade, instead of the multiple flights of steps (with a moderately usable steel track for bicycle wheels) on each side that you see on the pedestrian overpasses along most Twin Cities freeways.

    And I realize that each of these crossings, however inviting or not, must have been the result of blood, sweat and tears of those affected by freeway construction. I’m sure they didn’t just happen, given the penchant of DOTs everywhere for cutting such amenities out of the final drafts of their project plans.

    So I have to give thanks to those who gave their energy to these battles 50+ years ago. Things could have been worse. And I also recognize that’s small consolation to those in Rondo whose entire neighborhood was destroyed.

  5. GlowBoy

    All this talk also gets me to wondering what these two cities would look like if the highway lobby had been less powerful, and if neighborhood resistance had managed to not only gain some concessions here and there, but actually kept some of them from being built.

    I can’t help but think about the alternate reality, having personally lived with it. Part of the time I was in Portland I lived in one of the neighborhoods that would have been dug up to make way for the Mt Hood Freeway, one of the first freeways NOT to get built, thanks to community opposition.

    It was expected to run though one of the city’s most vital neighborhoods – imagine a freeway cutting through uptown, up Central Avenue or down Grand Avenue. I think in a way it was pure luck, not destiny or anything special about Portland, that this happened: it was the 1970s, planners hadn’t gotten around to carving up Portland like they had other cities, and public attitudes had begun to shift. But it certainly created Portland’s destiny and helped make Portland special, not only in saving some great neighborhoods, but because the dollars slated for the MHF paid for Portland’s first light rail line instead.

    So what might the Twin Cities freeway map look like without some of the urban freeways? Obviously, the southern part of I-35E might not have gotten built. Might I-94 been routed along the existing rail corridors instead of wiping out a predominantly minority neighborhood? Or outside the core cities themselves, through traffic being channeled along 494/694 or inner beltways like 100, 36, 110 and 62? Would those inner beltways have ended up bigger and uglier in exchange for less core-city freeway development? Would we at least have avoided the 15-lane monstrosities of the 62/35W and 94/35W Commons? Could 35W have ended up not being a canyon visible from outer space? Sorry if these questions might be painful for those who lived it, but I am curious as to what other outcomes could have happened.

    1. Monte Castleman

      There’s freeways that got build in Portland, and those that didn’t get built here too, and there’s a lot of cities with fewer freeway lane miles than Portland. So I’m not sure how alternate the reality is. But if I-35E hadn’t been built as planned, there likely would have been a freeway connecting the Lafayette Freeway, the new route of I-35E, with the route more directly north of downtown.

      I-94 would still serve serve regional traffic, and probably even do a better job of it, if it had been built in the rail corridor, but ultimately it was business interests along University and the desire to use the highway money as free money for “slum clearance” the reason it was built the way it did. They probably would have still cleared out Rondo, as they did the flats and so many other neighborhoods, but would have built other housing in it instead of a freeway.

      Nor do I think all the pedestrian crossings were the result of “blood, sweat, and tears”. There’s pedestrian crossings in the suburbs too, which even more so back then the perception was everyone walked. The difference is there was a lot better funding back then, so fixing a few potholes didn’t exhaust the budget and lead to solar powered bicycle repair station being cut.

      1. GlowBoy

        Follow up: Yesterday as a self-education exercise, I biked all five of the pedestrian bridges across I-94 in St. Paul west of downtown, as well as the Prior, Fairview and Western Avenue street crossings of I-94.

        Although the superblock streets (Snelling, etc.) aren’t pleasant, they do have sidewalks. That means that (the superblocks being half a mile wide, and the pedestrian bridges being dead center of each superblock), for a long stretch of I-94 there is a pedestrian crossing EVERY QUARTER MILE.

        I can’t think of an urban-but-not-downtown freeway *anywhere* with pedestrian crossings anywhere near that frequent. Did that really just happen on its own?

        All of the MUP bridges were reasonable in and of themselves, though crossing St. Anthony and Concordia Avenues can be dicey. Some of the crossings have marked crosswalks, some don’t. You definitely can’t count on cars traveling what’s essentially a frontage road to stop for you. Probably the worst aspect is that while there are diverter fences at the end of most of these pedestrian bridges to keep people from darting right out into traffic, many of them force you to travel a few yards pointing 180 degrees opposite having a view of the traffic barreling down towards you.

        Prior and Western have excellent bike lanes, and reasonable connections on both sides of the freeway. Fairview, not so much, though the crossing was reasonably pleasant on my northbound trip in the hash-marked shoulder zone. Northbound on Fairview would have required using the sidewalk, which looked fairly narrow but otherwise not terrible.

  6. Paul Strebe

    Help me understand why having fewer access points in this part of the city is a good thing.

    St.Paul is a terrible place to cross by bicycle going north to south. In this area, all of the traffic is funneled through either Snelling Avenue or Cretin Avenue. Unless you have a casual interest in keeping life and limb together while bicycling, you have to go all the way down to Prior Avenue.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      They’re talking about fewer access points from a freeway engineering perspective. There’s a trade-off in traffic flow and capacity, IIRC, between number of interchanges and traffic speeds.

  7. Jim Kruzitski

    Great article Andy. I had no idea about the history of Prior Avenue, and I have been using it for a little over 20 years.

    You even got my photo in the article, I am the person in the black shirt. I will try and smile next time.

Comments are closed.