A bike helmet, turned upside down with plants growing out of it.

Rethinking “Rethinking I-94”

This post was written by the streets.mn Climate Emergency Committee.

In 2016, MNDOT started a project it calls “Rethinking I-94.” (Previously discussed in this post by Climate Committee member Pat Thompson). This project is now in its second phase, which includes public engagement to conclude this year.

At the end of 2020, a coalition of community organizations sent a letter to Margaret Anderson Kelliher—Commissioner of MNDOT—and to the Federal Highway Administration, offering feedback and input. The letter highlighted the harm the construction of I-94 did to communities it passes through, and calls for a “greener, quieter, healthier corridor.” The groups offer proposals for moving the project towards that goal such as centering access for cleaner, more sustainable transportation modes and for prioritizing reducing vehicle miles traveled.

The Streets.mn Climate Emergency Committee considered signing on as a supporter to this letter. Had we done so, we would be in welcome company with groups like Fresh Energy, the Sierra Club, Our Streets Minneapolis, and the Midtown Greenway Coalition—groups we quite often agree with.

But the streets.mn Climate Committee ultimately declined to sign this letter because we felt it doesn’t go far enough.

Despite its name, MNDOT’s project does not allow for “rethinking I-94,” it can only recapitulate I-94. And the community organizations’ letter, while we agree with its goals, does not push for the magnitude of change necessary. The urgency of our climate crisis requires more ambitious plans, and even the proposals by the community organizations will not manifest an I-94 corridor that has been sufficiently reconsidered.

A google map overhead view of the  gorgon's nest of car lanes that are known as "the 35W-I94 interchange south of downtown in Minneapolis".

Rethink this. Challenge mode: the result DOESN’T look more or less indistinguishable from what you started with.

The creation of I-94 did radical harm to the communities it bulldozed and divided, and that harm continues today. The magnitude of change likely even if MNDOT adopts the community organizations’ proposals comes nowhere close to the magnitude of that harm. Addressing the climate impacts of I-94 cannot be successfully accomplished without accounting for the carbon externality costs of the corridor. Addressing the impacts of the corridor on the surrounding communities by merely “reconnecting” them is inadequate.

It is critical that we recognize the mismatch of the time horizons at play here. The consequences of the choices made now will last for decades beyond the short term mindset embedded in MNDOT’s concept of what it means to “rethink I-94.” Truly rethinking I-94 can’t be accomplished without a plan to sunset the I-94 we live with today.

So, while the Climate Committee supports the goals and motivation behind the letter from the community organizations, we felt it necessary to abstain from joining as a signatory. MNDOT’s project is channeling community participation toward something that is less “rethinking” than it is “rebranding” the same old ideas that created the harm that needs to be remedied. MNDOT’s process doesn’t provide a pathway to a responsible destination regarding land use and the climate effects of transportation policy.

A future-oriented transportation department would lead the community to imagine winding up somewhere other than where we are: wasteful and harmful car-centric land use. (Keep an eye out for an upcoming post from streets.mn Climate Committee member Fred Kreider about the massive amount of urban land consumed by the I-94 corridor. For now, here is a sneak preview.)

In light of streets.mn’s core values, MNDOT’s own components of livability, and applying the Climate Committee’s climate-crisis lens, we expect a plan for the future with a much clearer vision for and commitment to that future. Rethinking I-94 must account for climate science, must challenge the assumptions implicit in I-94’s existence, and must be no less radical than I-94’s original creation. Anything less is just a new façade on the status quo.

If you’re interested in the work of the Streets.mn Climate Committee, or want to get involved, let us know here.

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This post was authored by the following Climate Emergency Committee members:

The logo for streets dot mn but it's a flower. Climate @ streets dot mn.

Pine Salica

About Pine Salica

Pine lives in Minneapolis and works in Saint Paul. Pine hasn't owned a car for over a dozen years, and can count on one hand the number of times they've operated one in the last 12 months. Housing is a human right, car storage is not. Member of the Climate Committee.

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14 thoughts on “Rethinking “Rethinking I-94”

  1. Anu WilleEmilie Wille

    It’s interesting to me that when examples were provided of the organizations in the coalition, there was no mention of the largely BIPOC community groups, such as ReConnect Rondo, the Seward Neighborhood Group, and Little Africa. Does streets.mn consider the traditional environmental-oriented orgs to be the only important ones on this letter? In fact I don’t think environmental racism or the fact that the most impacted communities are majority BIPOC is mentioned at all. There’s also a complete failure to acknowledge the community reconnection aspect of the letter. Climate action doesn’t exist in a bubble; our climate action must not shy away from facing and discussing racism and injustice. The euphemistic language here, as well as the avoidance of telling the whole story, is pretty disappointing to me.

    1. Anu WilleEmilie Wille

      I also find this decision disappointing generally. I-94 is up for reconstruction, so this is a window of opportunity. There isn’t just going to be another that pops up anytime soon. We push hard now or we miss out. My interpretation is that the committee thinks it best to allow for no progress rather than some, even if that progress isn’t 100% to the extent we need. Sitting out, rather than pushing, when an action is deemed to be “not enough”, appears as acquiescence to a long-standing injustice

      1. Trademark

        Agreed, also the fact that those BIPOC committee are also usually not for anything even close to getting rid of I-94. Because for many people in the city it’s a lifeline.

        You can sign on to something not having agreed with it 100% and still put out a statement like this showing the flaws in it. But then your at the table in order to push for something like a Gold Line extension to Minneapolis

        1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

          The comment that Reconnect Rondo’s Keith Baker made in my recent interview with him on this:

          “Our community has a continuum, and people are at different places. Some want the doggone thing just to be filled in. Others say it’s OK to have a freeway, but don’t want expansion. Or that we need transit considerations, as well as ensuring connectivity so that biking and walking can take place… We are at an important point, talking about mobility equity,” he said. “Anything that gets us to mobility equity, we completely support.”

          https://www.minnpost.com/cityscape/2021/02/will-mndot-be-responsive-to-communities-i-94-non-expansion-demands/

          1. Hannah PritchardHannah PritchardModerator  

            The thing that I keep relearning is that no group is ever a monolith. I’m not at all surprised that opinions within Rondo about what to do about I-94 vary.

        2. Christa MosengChrista Moseng

          I appreciate these criticisms. Speaking only for myself, not for the Committee, here are my thoughts.

          In my view, the choice of signatories mentioned was not a suggestion that the other signatories are unimportant. The groups named are a representative sample of groups whose missions and interests clearly and often coincide with the Climate Committee’s mission and interests. Neighborhood groups necessarily represent a different nexus of interests, some of them environmental and climate driven, and others not. Had we chosen to mention other groups, it would have easily have been read as criticism or opposition to those groups, and that’s certainly not my position as a committee member.

          I think every group that signed the letter made a legitimate strategic decision in light of their values and goals of their constituencies, and I personally think their involvement is important and necessary to advance their interests concerning the ultimate outcome. Participating in MNDOT’s process is obviously necessary to be at the table. It’s the only table there is.

          But when groups like the groups we did name—broad based environmental groups without a hyperlocal constituency—opt to sit at the table set by MNDOT, the voice that points out that the table is greased and set on a slope has to come from somewhere else.

          This post is chiefly a criticism of MNDOT’s biased process, not of the groups that have made the valid strategic choice to work within the process to advance their interests. When considering what our group could add to that dynamic, it seemed clear to me that the way we could be most effective would be to make ideological space for the people working within the process to demand more.

    2. Megan

      I wholeheartedly agree. This decision is one of the most disappointing moves from streets.mn in a long time. This article reads as a self congratulatory letter, especially since it provides no details on the committee’s alternate plans. The committee had an opportunity right off the bat to inform readers, and instead disenfranchised them. This is a complex item, and it deserves the brightest spotlight imaginable, pointing out MNDot’s failures while not offering any alternative solutions will simply reinforce the status quo.

  2. Brian

    I suspect what most Streets.mn folks really want is to remove I-94 altogether. I doubt anything less will really make them happy. Never mind how all the trucks and buses that currently use I-94 will get around. I expect that if I-94 was ever removed that a lot of the warehouses and plants that are located near I-94 for the easy truck access will simply move to the suburbs next to a different highway. Goodbye to a lot of good jobs in St. Paul..

    MNDOT does not seem to have any plans shown on their website for rebuilding that stretch of I-94 so it is unlikely to occur any time soon. The previous plan MNDOT had for I-94 was to not add any lanes. However, it would make the right lane a through lane instead of stopping and starting several times. Some would call fixing the right lane an expansion, but it seems to fix a safety issue so vehicles are not weaving in and out of the right lane.

    For at least two decades MNDOT has stated they didn’t want to rebuild that stretch of I-94 due to the disruption the work will cause. There is also the little matter of the $1 billion cost of the previous plan for I-94.

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