How Much are North Loop’s 4th Street Onramps Costing Minneapolis?

Like most freeways, I long took the 4th Street viaducts for granted. They just loomed there at the edge of downtown taking up space, hoisted 30’ in the air like a helium whale. A grey meaningless concrete backdrop generating constant noise and microscopic particles of plastic, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other subtle poison. These are the freeway onramps of our lives, and other than a few thousand drivers, for whom an extra exit off I-94 shaves a minute from their commute, most people ignore them.

But that all changed one day, years ago, when a friend helped me realize that this pair of concrete one-lane freeway onramps take up a huge amount of valuable land in Minneapolis’ North Loop. After that, I couldn’t stop staring at them.

“Wait, it’s just one really long onramp?” I asked.

“Just look at the onramps, Bill. Just look at them,” replied my sage companion.

The 4th Street viaducts in the North Loop are one of many ramps on and off I-94, working for one direction of travel. They are used by about 15,000 drivers each day, and save maybe two minutes of time if you are being extremely generous with route mapping. In other words, they’re not very useful!

Alternate route off I-94 versus current route off I-94: does Minneapolis really need this onramp?

This year, MnDOT is spending $3,000,000 of Minnesota taxpayer dollars to repair these large onramps. It’s a damn shame that MnDOT is fixing them up, because what they really should be doing is tearing these onramps down.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • They’re ugly.
  • They’re loud.
  • They take up a huge amount of space.
  • They spew particulate air pollution into the air.
  • They take up a huge amount of space that could be used for other things.
  • They launch speeding (!) cars directly onto well-used pedestrian surface streets in the Warehouse District, like for example, directly next to the entrance of Pizza Lucé.
  • And finally, they take up a huge amount of space that could be used for other things in the heart of what has become pretty much Minneapolis’ most dense and valuable neighborhood.

What I mean to say is that these two onramps occupy over 15 acres (!) of land in Minneapolis’ North Loop, some of the hottest real estate in the entire country. They exist so that a few thousand drivers might save a small bit of time on their way to Maple Grove. In the meantime, thousands of people living, working, or hanging out in the heart of Minneapolis have to deal with the rather unhealthy consequences.

Is it really a good idea to have a high-speed freeway end directly between the Pizza Lucé and Dulono’s entrances?

It’s just one metric, but I was curious about how much this land might actually be worth if the super-long onramps were not there. Instead of spending $3,000,000 to keep these onramps in place, what if they were torn down? How valuable might that land be for the city?

I crunched some numbers to try and estimate Minneapolis’ direct tax base loss. Luckily, this is pretty easy to guess, because you can just sum up the property taxes of the half-block right next to them: everything from the Salvation Army facility (very low value property) to the Bookman Flats (very high value property).

The 15.5-acre onramp footprint vs. the 7.5-acre taxable properties I studied.

In 2020, those seven acres of North Loop real estate, half the footprint of the 4th Street onramps, brought $2,469,830 dollars into city coffers. If you double that, you get a sense for how much money Minneapolis loses each year in tax base revenue by having these onramps exist.

The answer? Almost five million dollars, year after year.

Mind you, this is a conservative estimate, just the direct tax base of the land under the onramps. It does not get into the ambient effects of removing a freeway onramp, which I imagine are significant. Ponder for a moment how not living next to a massive grey concrete onramp that hovers in the air spewing pollution might improve your quality of life… 

In conclusion, this is a textbook case of how urban freeways privilege suburban drivers at the expense of people living nearby. As I wrote in 2013, this is a half-assed freeway onramp that nobody would miss. These massive lanes take up some of the most valuable land in the city of Minneapolis, making nearly everyone’s lives worse, just to make it marginally easier to drive north onto I-94 from a few select parts of downtown and/or allow drivers to speed nonstop into the Warehouse District at over 50 miles per hour.

Commissioner Anderson Kelliher, tear down this wall!

35 thoughts on “How Much are North Loop’s 4th Street Onramps Costing Minneapolis?

  1. Northsider

    Any way we can stop them from spending this money and put it somewhere else fund an alternative? I walk under the 55 Bridge over Theo Wirth all the time and it’s missing concrete and etc. I’ll rather they prioritize that.

    1. Brian

      I’m pretty sure the only way you could stop MNDOT from doing the project at this point would be to get the legislature to pass a bill to stop it. The project starts in two to three weeks so I am sure the contract with a contractor is in place by now.

      Unless you’re a bridge engineer how do you know the highway 55 bridge is in worse condition than these bridges? It isn’t unusual for a bridge to lose concrete yet not be in danger of collapsing. Yes, it should be repaired, but lots of bridges need repair.

  2. Dave Carlson

    Bill… I do agree that getting rid of the towering 4th Street on/off ramps would be a good thing for the North Loop neighborhood for the reasons you describe. From Google satellite view, it looks like maybe the ramps could still be used getting on and off I-94 to Tenth Avenue North, then use surface streets into downtown from there (4th Street one way into downtown, 3rd Street one way out of downtown with a jog SW at Tenth, or a two-way 4th Street). Of course, there would still have to be a bridge(s) over the RR tracks/Cedar Lake Trail, but this would open up the whole area under the viaducts for commercial and residential development along 4th Street. Without the overhead ramps looming, 4th Street could become a very vibrant avenue similar to Washington Avenue. This plan might be amenable to drivers coming in from the NW metro area rather than just shuttling them onto North 7th Street or other routes. .

    On a somewhat similar note, have there ever been discussions about getting rid of I-394 into downtown (east of the I-94 junction)… or maybe just funneling the traffic on and off First Avenue/12th Street (the first exit and entrance ramps)? Granted, this portion of the freeway is basically below grade so certainly not as visually obnoxious but the land is still probably pretty valuable and developable. Not necessarily advocating for this as it certainly is convenient for me when I drive into downtown from the western suburbs and has the direct ramps to the parking garages…

    1. Trademark

      394 would be a great place to put a grade separated light rail from northeast minneapolis to uptown. It’s already in a trench so there wouldn’t be any tunneling costs. For the rest of the space either a 2 lane road connecting to hennepin in the vein of ayd mill. Or it would be a good location for an OMF.

      Additionally if a light rail is added. This would become even more valuable land. The next phase could be starting a program where private developers match the city for capping the trench in exchange for development rights.

    2. Brian

      Why even have 394 if you’re going to severe the connection from downtown? I bet 50% of the traffic goes downtown. Carpoolers and buses would also lose direct access to downtown. Traffic heading north/west on I-94 would have to exit at 17th Ave/Washington Ave to go downtown. If I read my maps right, traffic going east on I-94 would basically have to take I-94 east to 35 North to the 3rd St/Washington Ave exit. It appears there are no exits to downtown from I-94 east past 394. MNDOT expects those heading east on I-94 to downtown to use the 4th St or 7th St exits.

      1. Dave Carlson

        Based on the very regular long backups of traffic exiting eastbound I-394 to eastbound I-94 (into the Lowry Hill tunnel), I’d certainly think most traffic does not necessarily go into downtown from I-394. Still, I was only asking if changes to the downtown portion of I-394 had ever been considered, I wasn’t advocating for it… especially with the direct connections to the large parking ramps which house a lot of cars which would otherwise be using downtown streets, as well as transit use.

        1. Trademark

          That whole area needs to be rebuilt with an additional turn lane onto 94. The Lowry Tunnel complicates that tho. Reduce 394 east of 94 to one lane each direction. Keep the exit for 12th street and have the rest of traffic continue to Washington.

          I’d be willing to make 2nd Ave N a two-way with better auto access for ramp accessibility for the short term to make up for the loss of 394. Long term. Extend a train to wayzata and build 94 BRT and build the park and ride ramps farther west and north. With high quality public transit we should not subsidize park and rides long term.

          That 394 segment is so overbuilt. It is never busy and is screaming to be reclaimed. And it would be much cheaper then tunneling a train under Nicollet or anywhere else in the city.

  3. J G

    Having used both of these exits, the 7th street exit could in no way handle the volume the 4th street exit handles. This would largely mean more than a few minutes, especially during a busy event, like a Twins game.

    The speeding cars would be an issue of people not following speed limits, as this changes a fair ways before the pedestrian area.

    Not saying these are reasons to keep it, per se, just things that would need to be figured out if you were to remove them.

    Personally, I’d rather prefer to see large parking towards the outskirts, and extremely good inner city public transportation in an attempt to remove vehicles from the streets. This would mean you could get rid of multiple ramps, also.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      On the other hand, it would be fine. You can’t plan all of downtown around the 9th inning of a Twins game. You could also drive up Washington to the Broadway entrance ramp.

  4. Kevin Wang

    Have you considered how much it would cost to demolish these ramps and remedy the land underneath? Maybe that’s why the city is going forward with the $3 million repair. Not saying either is right or wrong, just saying there might be more nuance to this issue.

  5. mister.shoes

    Years ago I created one of my trademark fantasy maps for the UrbanMSP forums centered around removing these ramps. One thing I thought would be a nice convenience was a connection to 94 at Plymouth Ave. Eastbound drivers would be able to exit at Broadway, Plymouth, or 7th which would relieve some of the traffic pressure on 7th and give more direct access to/from the north end of the North Loop. I didn’t bother doing any number crunching to justify the fantasy map; I just liked the idea of making the North Loop nicer.

    1. mister.shoes

      Oooh, I do still have the link lying around. A later version of this reclaimed a little land from freeway ramps between Washington and 3rd, as once 3rd stops being a long onramp, there’s little point in having 394 continue past/under it to Washington. I highly dislike the rest of that particular version, though, so I won’t share.

      https://vault25.com/misc/urbanmsp/nl-redone-rev1.jpg

      1. Brian

        What does changing off and on ramps going to/from to I-94 have to do with removing an off and on ramp going to/from I-394?

        1. mister.shoes

          If 3rd Street and 3rd Ave intersect at grade, the on-ramp to 394 west can move from Washington Ave to the intersection of 3rd and 3rd—or even another block to 4th Street.

  6. Brian

    There is enough BS in this article to fertilize a couple of good sized farms.

    Is the $2.4 million in property taxes more important than the tens or hundreds of millions that these drivers spend in Minneapolis every year? Nobody from Maple Grove, Osseo, and other suburbs served by I-94 is going to take transit downtown because there isn’t any transit into downtown from those cities after morning rush hour! They’ll just stay home if they can’t drive into downtown easily.

    It is highly unlikely that all that land would be usable for other uses. You’re still going to need a road from I-94 to downtown.

    There is no way it would only be a 2 minute delay for drivers during rush hour. A single lane at 20 or 25 MPH plus probably half a dozen intersections is going to mean congestion during rush hour. (I count five or six intersections on a map.) Why is a driver’s time less valuable than that of a walker, a biker, or a transit rider?

    Unless some of the trips just go away the pollution and particulate is still going to be there if it is 20 feet in the air, or at surface level.

    I am not saying that removing these viaducts wouldn’t be a good idea, but the reasons given in the article are not good reasons to do it. Could the space underneath the viaduct be used for buildings instead of parking?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

      This isn’t a highway, it’s a set of two one-directional onramps. They can easily be removed without greatly impacting existing vehicle access to downtown. Most drivers would not even notice.

      On top of that, there are many many reasons to change our transportation system so that there is good transit to downtown at all times of the day. This would be a great place to start that transformation precisely because these particular onramps have such marginal value for driver access, and have such high value as developable land. So, yes, many of the trips should just go away. That’s a thing that could happen thanks to induced demand. Other of these trips would simply move around a bit.

    2. Trademark

      By the time this happens the Bottineau LIght rail would probably be completed. That would be high quality public transit

      1. Brian

        Unless someone is within walking distance of Bottineau they are probably going to get into a car first if they live some place like Maple Grove. The majority of people are going to decide to just drive downtown once they are in their car versus driving over to a future light rail station and waiting for the next train. I don’t know how you make light rail the first choice for going downtown versus driving. It doesn’t help that the train probably take 10 to 15 minutes longer than driving.

        One big win for transit would be to fix the homeless issues on light rail. I got on the green line in downtown a few times and it stuck to high heaven like urine. I know they are switching to plastic seats to help with that.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

          IMO the transportation and design priorities of downtown Minneapolis should not revolve around minimizing drive times to Maple Grove.

        2. Trademark

          Yes I agree that not as many people would use the train if they don’t live by it but that’s not what we’re arguing. We’re talking about a ramp that gives an advantage to cars versus taxable revenue’s for the city of Minneapolis. In particular your point of contention is with the added delay of time. And the fact that there isnt any transit from the northwest suburbs to downtown after morning rush hour. I don’t even think your initial argument is bad in 2021. But once the train it’s a different story.

          The majority of traffic we are talking about on 4th street is likely coming from the Northwest suburbs and there are park and ride opportunities along this line that are very near to Osseo and Maple Grove. No one is saying that you have to go on the train. If you still want to drive in you can. If we would take the ramp, we would be giving an alternative of the train in return for the slightly longer commute time.

          I would also agree with the need for a downtown connection. That can be done through a ramp ending on Plymouth or 10th Ave N. I would even be open to widening some of those streets to account for future traffic.

          The reason why we are not valuing a driver’s time in this particular situation is that drivers as a class are privliged in the way that the infrastructure benefits them (not even getting into the fact of the exclusionary costs of car ownership). You said it yourself that transit users have added time to get places.

          Three of the ways to improve transit is to get more people riding it due to the density along the route. Create a pedestrian environment. And increasing city revenue through property taxes to fund transit. While there are people on here who would probably advocate for getting rid of 94 altogether I am not one of them. I drive for a living. Freeways still have a purpose. But in this case there is so little traffic that goes on this stretch that for the lost cost of property tax that’s unable to be collected, the cost of an extended bridge, and the alternative of the light rail. It makes sense to get rid of these ramps

  7. Ryan

    Interesting article, thanks for writing it and posting it. Couldn’t this same argument be made for the 94/35W interchange cutting between downtown, uptown, and Ventura village? I am no civil engineer, but I trust they have extensive research on the cost/benefit of urban land usage for freeways, on ramps, and off ramps. I used to live in the Waite Park neighborhood of NE MPLS and one of my main frustrations was how long it took to get to 694, 94, 35W, or 280. Before moving there, I was enamored with the story of NE pushing against the freeway plans. Once I lived there, I wish the freeway would have been built. I think residents in the North Loop might say the same if they lost their convenient freeway connections.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

      Thanks!

      Yes.

      And in IMO Northeast is far better off without I-335, maybe not for driving quickly to far away places, but in many other ways that more than compensate for the loss of high-speed auto travel.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

      In the same way that guns kill people, even though they are inanimate: the concept of extended agency. How many cars would be driving 30′ high in the air above 4th Street if it did not exist? Cars and roads are inseparably part of the same system of urban technology.

      1. Brian

        If the bridges were rerouted onto surface streets doesn’t the particulate pollution still exist?

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

          Sure, but not in this particular spot. Also, it’s been proven time and again that when freeways are removed, a good percentage (10+%) of the total traffic simply disappears.

  8. Rich varda

    I am sorry, but this is such a naïve article. Right now, downtown Minneapolis is in an extreme crisis about its future is an economically stable entity. Cutting off traffic access would only increase the likelihood that the crisis would result in a disaster. You really need to do the detailed traffic studies to understand the implications of this proposal, but do you understand what that means?

    Is downtown Minneapolis heading the way of Detroit 1960? An interesting question, since the corporations that drive downtown Minneapolis may not be the corporations of the future. Target has smartly already decided to reduce their footprint in downtown Minneapolis by a large amount of square footage. Do you want to create an incentive for others to do that?

  9. Brian

    I guess the message is if you don’t live within walking, transit, or bicycling distance of downtown Minneapolis you should just stay the heck out of downtown.

    Some have proposed just removing the 4th/3rd exit/entrance to I-94. Going from downtown all the way to Plymouth would add significant time to getting to I-94 especially with all the traffic lights. There are certainly people who would take their business elsewhere if they had another mile or two of surface streets to take before they got to downtown.

    And, no, I don’t live anywhere near Maple Grove. I don’t even live in the northwest suburbs. I was simply using Maple Grove as an example of someone who might take I-94 to downtown to go to concert, show, restaurant, or sporting event in downtown.

    For me, I don’t have a transit option downtown outside of working hours, and trying to ride my bike to Minneapolis would add miles to the trip over driving a car. There is at one area where the freeway is the shortest path. Surface streets require going several miles out of the way to get around wetlands. Drivers will even take the freeway for a mile and a half because surface streets take ten minutes instead of two minutes on the freeway. I used to take the express bus to downtown pre-pandemic and it absolutely sucked from a time perspective. It probably added thirty minutes a day over driving.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

      The message is that, if you drive to Downtown Minneapolis, don’t expect to speed at over 50 miles per hour directly into a heavily used walkable neighborhood like the Warehouse District, but rather to be forced by road design priorities to drive at a careful attentive speed that is far less likely to injure or kill anyone. The most successful downtowns in the country and in the world are precisely those which are NOT designed around easy freeway access.

      I would say that our streets should be designed so that, the second you exit a freeway anywhere near Downtown Minneapolis, you should be driving at 20 miles per hour or fewer.

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