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!

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.