For a few years now, MnDOT, the state’s transportation agency, has been promoting its “Rethinking I-94” plan, making a big deal out of hand-wringing and soul searching about the future of the state’s busiest and most urban freeway. I’ve gone to a few meetings about it, and — in a rare television appearance — I was actually in the TPT documentary on the subject. I was interviewed as a local freeway history expert and then as part of a “Rethinking I-94” focus group that took place in the TPT studio. I’ve had many conversations over the years with some of the key members of the MnDOT team, and they are, for the record, nice and smart people.
The infrastructure of the state’s core urban freeway has reached the end of its lifespan. It’s been 60 years since many working-class and POC neighborhoods were bulldozed to create Interstate 94, and a generation or two since its construction displaced or harmed tens of thousands of people. Before literally replacing everything along the freeway (i.e. what’s happening these days on I-35W), the agency is undergoing a prolonged series of public engagement and relations exercises. Questions included in the scope of the report include how to “enhance safety and mobility for people walking, biking, driving and using transit.” Or, alternately, how to “develop a community-based approach focused on reconnecting neighborhoods.”
But really, the study’s dominant question focuses on congestion. There’s too much congestion, the study repeatedly points out. That framing of the issue leaves little room for much actual “thinking outside the car.”
Infrastructure is hard like that. It’s difficult to imagine changing a status quo when so many people use it every day. Instead, the urban freeway becomes a constant background in people’s lives, so that it’s nearly impossible to imagine our city without a six- or eight-lane freeway going through the middle of it.
Meanwhile, MnDOT is pushing an expansion of I-94 out of north Minneapolis that would only increase traffic on the freeway. Meanwhile, County Public Works agencies like Ramsey County are adding lanes to 94-adjacent infrastructure like the Dale Street bridge replacement, which will make it only more dangerous to cross the street by the freeway ramps.
Given these recent actions, my prediction is that, when the rubber meets the road, the legacy of “Rethinking I-94” will be reduced to “Rebranding I-94.”
I doubt anything car-related will change significantly. The agency will continue to offer the barest of improvements to pedestrians or cyclists. And I predict that the dominant focus of funding and policy will be on “reducing congestion” for drivers, which –because of the bind of induced demand — presents a nearly impossible goal in an urban core.
But what if that wasn’t true? What would an actual “rethinking” of our state’s busiest and most destructive urban freeway look like? In other words, What Would Galaxy Brain Meme Do?
Level 0: Rethinking I-94 for Who?
Let’s set the galaxy-meme baseline at the MnDOT “rethinking” status quo, being charitable about the outcome of this effort. The absolute minimum level of “rethinking” would add some measure of pricing to the freeway. At the very least, you’d have to find space for Mn-PASS/bus-only lanes in the right-of-way. Ideally, and economically, you would accomplish this by taking away an existing travel lane.
Here’s a fun fact: In the not too distant past, I-94 had one less travel lane, devoted to buses during rush hour. (Technically it was a shoulder, but you get the gist.) Travel lanes were expanded following the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007, and the freeway has stayed that way ever since.
Barring big political changes at the agency, this likely is the best-case scenario for what MnDOT might actually do, along with throwing in a few pieces of public art along the pedestrian bridges. In all probability, the agency won’t even take a travel lane for this project and will instead try to expand the freeway somehow. Keep in mind, due to the Lowry Hill Tunnel, this is impossible through downtown Minneapolis.
Either way, this is a pretty weak “rethinking.” Let’s do better.
Level 1: Rethinking I-94 for Whom?
Freeways do not begin and end at their literal edges. Limited-access freeways are part of a system of high-volume and high-speed traffic that connects into and onto city streets. That’s where a next level of rethinking could occur.
How do you change the freeway on- and off-ramps to lower speeds as people drive into and out of pedestrian-oriented city streets?
To my eye, the ramps and de facto frontage roads of I-94 are full of opportunities to reduce speeds and free up valuable land for humane, urban uses. Freeway on-ramp areas are statistically the most dangerous places to bike or walk, and the agency could adopt improving safety and reducing driving speeds as their first priority here, and only secondly consider how to reduce congestion.
“Rethinking I-94” in this way would involve removing some ramps altogether. At minimum, I would suggest the 10th Street ramp in downtown St. Paul, the 4th Street viaduct in downtown Minneapolis, and the 6th Street on-ramp on the east side of St. Paul. Removing these unnecessary ramps would free up lots of land in key spaces, as well as dramatically improve the safety and quality of life for people who live or move near them.
That could be just a start. Which other ramps are unnecessary and dangerous?
What would happen, for example, if you got rid of the supremely dangerous on- and off-ramps at Lyndale Avenue South? A 4-3 conversion on that terrible road would be so much more feasible.
Overall, ramps need to be dramatically altered to be safe for people walking, biking or living nearby. The on- and off-ramps that funnel speeding drivers into downtowns or neighborhoods are death traps that degrade the safety and quality of life for thousands of people every day.
What if we calmed the ramps at places like 6th Street in downtown Minneapolis, or Washington / Broadway avenues in north Minneapolis, or the I-94 on- and off-ramps that speed drivers past St. Paul’s largest homeless shelter? You don’t need to close freeway ramps to make them dramatically safer, but tightening lane widths and turn radii would help a lot.
To do this right, nearly every sidewalk and street corner that abuts an agency freeway ramp should be tightened and calmed, with “porkchop islands” removed. The goal for an agency that is “Rethinking I-94” should be to create clear symbolic demarcations and physical protections between the high-speed, low-access freeway spaces and the low-speed, high-mobility urban areas.
In other words, it should be nearly impossible to drive faster than 25 miles per hour until you actually get past the on-ramp stoplights. It should be impossible to take a corner off of the freeway, or to accelerate through a busy intersection to get into the freeway faster, and critically injure a pedestrian.
Design details can make this dream a reality, and if MnDOT did this, the agency would create a model for a safer, less-harmful urban freeway. At long last, I-94 would not be constantly eroding the quality of life and safety of the people living and moving nearby.
Level 2: Rethinking I-94 for Whom’st?
Two words: freeway caps.
Because many stretches of I-94 are below-grade, they might be ideal for freeway caps. Though expensive, these have many benefits, including increasing connections over the freeway, reducing noise and air pollution, and (most importantly) creating new land and public space. I did a whole report on how a cap might help St. Paul’s historically black Rondo community, but that could be only the beginning. Imagine caps at Nicollet Avenue, Cedar-Riverside, the Hawthorne and McKinley neighborhoods of northside Minneapolis, or in downtown St. Paul. They would transform the public realm and the lived experience of huge parts of our cities, reconnect neighborhoods long severed from one another, and allow huge amounts of public parks and housing to be constructed.
That would be a transformation.
Level 3: Rethinking I-94 for Whomst’d?
When the United States government decided in 1956 to fund the interstate highway system, it came at an extreme financial cost. Outside of military spending, no physical project in U.S. history has received more dollars than the interstate highway system. It was a huge expense, $25 billion over 10 years; adjusted for inflation, that would be $236 billion today. And, of course, that money was just the beginning of the federal price tag, which was at least double.) This investment radically altered the entire economy, especially around real estate, automobile and fossil fuel production, almost the whole of the retail market, and much more besides. This was a huge change spurred by the government and the industries that lobbied for it.
It also came at an extreme social cost, entailing the displacement and eradication of hundreds of neighborhoods and hundreds of thousands of people’s actual homes and businesses in ways that involved coercion and violence, and exercised the fiercest kind of government control. In addition, freeways altered the connections among neighborhoods and curtailed people’s mobility, and their health impacts have shortened lifespans and diminished quality of life through various forms of particulate pollution. Then there’s the actual physical violence engendered by speeding cars, which has killed tens of thousands of people like clockwork each year for decades.
The freeway system also came at an extreme environmental cost, pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, fostering wasteful energy-intensive landscapes full of large single-family homes, pouring salt into the water and rubber particles from tires and other pollutants into the air at fantastic rates.
All this was done as a deliberate government policy. It is not extreme to suggest that it could be undone in the same way.
If we’re using our galaxy brains, we absolutely can ask: Why not simply get rid of I-94?
Surely it’s possible, and dozens of possible futures are to be found here. You might make a regular boulevard through the city along its right-of-way. You might use the right-of-way to build a dedicated high-frequency transit corridor, some connection that allowed you to get between the downtowns and beyond in under 15 minutes. You might use the additional space on connecting roads for dedicated transit routes. You might build tens of thousands of homes for people who need them, in a dense and transit-served part of the city. You might use some of the land for parks or schools. Without a freeway to ruin the local environment, the land in the corridor could be used in a thousand different ways.
Freeways have been removed before in other cities; traffic evolves and adapts. We build the city we want and desire, and just getting rid of the urban interstate would be far cheaper than freeway caps, with a lot of the same benefits and more besides.
Now that’s “Rethinking I-94.”