Rethinking I-94 Is Exhausting: Sometimes I Think That’s Intentional

It seemed promising when the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) started the Rethinking I-94 process in 2015 with an apology from then-Commissioner Charlie Zelle about the harm that the freeway’s construction caused.

That launched Phase 1, which took a couple of years. MnDOT learned that the people in communities along the trench were concerned about more things than the department expected to hear. It resulted in a mass of reports and appendixes, and led MnDOT to launch what it calls the Livability Framework, with seven “pillars” of concern, such as equity, sense of place, health/environment and safety.

The Livability Framework is not strictly part of Rethinking I-94, mind you; it’s meant to inform all (most? some?) of MnDOT’s work in the metro region. But the lack of clarity about the framework’s influence on the I-94 project and the extra set of meetings to discuss each of the pillars has added to the list of things community members have to deal with.

Meanwhile, the official Rethinking I-94 process has continued on to Phase 2. That involves required steps from the federal NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), MEPA (Minnesota Environmental Policy Act), multiple Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) tiers, historic preservation and other stuff.

So much alphabet soup and money for consultants hopping through the revolving door, so much public engagement.

In case I sound like a whiner, note this quote from MnDOT’s own Phase 1 report:

“Engagement fatigue is real…. Providing funding to existing community groups or leaders is well worth the time and effort. These groups already have established the knowledge, trust and respect within their communities. By supporting their efforts, MnDOT can better reach all corridor communities, especially those who are underrepresented” (p. 12).

MnDOT seems to have forgotten its own lesson-learned about engagement fatigue, and it has not provided this type of funding in Phase 2.

Where Are We Now?

We’re at a critical point in Phase 2 where MnDOT has posted a preliminary draft Purpose & Need Statement, with Goals and Evaluation Criteria, and Logical Termini. (Yes, everything needs to have an initial capital letter. Yes, they really do call the ends of the area within which they plan to work the Logical Termini.)

As pretentious as they may sound, these documents are really important: Everything that comes after in Rethinking I-94 will be measured against them. If a proposed project or design doesn’t meet the Purpose & Need, it won’t be done. And guess what, MnDOT has relegated anything related to “livability” into a separate process outside of the primary Purpose & Need.

This freeway — which would never have been built if NEPA and MEPA had existed in the 1950s — is now all but assumed to require rebuilding in some form or other, despite the climate emergency we live in, the health harms it causes to everyone who lives near it, and the destruction and division it caused and continues to cause.

A fair rethinking would start from the premise of repairing the harm the freeway created instead of softening additional impacts. Whether that’s creation of a surface boulevard, a parkway in the trench with bus lanes and a separate bikeway, closing the frontage roads to through traffic, or some other approach that is being explored and implemented in other cities around the world: The Twin Cities should be in the forefront of that change. We should start with the outcomes we want — better health, less noise, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, fewer traffic deaths, faster transit service, safer crossings — and then work backwards to create the solution.

What Is Needed

To make that happen, someone with power has to actually rethink this freeway in light of the reality of the next 50 to 60 years, not the past 50. Both the St. Paul and Minneapolis city councils have passed resolutions stating what they want to see in the process, but this has barely been acknowledged by MnDOT. Community groups that have been participating in MnDOT’s excruciating process have written an extensive letter (45 pages) describing a community-focused Purpose & Need statement in line with this reality.

We all need to tell MnDOT and Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher to fix the project documents before design work begins to make sure community needs are a primary purpose. MnDOT must do what the project name promises and rethink this historic boondoggle, including designing to meet the state’s recent commitment to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled by 20 percent. (How can that happen if we rebuild freeways in the core cities, the place where it’s easiest to decrease driving?)

Whether intentionally or not, MnDOT’s process has the effect of wearing down community involvement, but we will keep coming back. This project is too important.


Feature photo courtesy of the Star Tribune

Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the Climate Committee.

35 thoughts on “Rethinking I-94 Is Exhausting: Sometimes I Think That’s Intentional

  1. Lou Miranda

    As long as federal transportation funding prioritizes automobiles, and as long as MNDOT expands and grows based solely on the number of highway miles, lanes, & bridges it produces, we will never get the Climate Change-reducing transportation networks that we need.

    This project is a complete sham, just like the expansion of 35W in downtown Mpls and the upcoming expansion of 494. These are Climate Change-inducing projects. #defundMndot

    1. Lou Miranda

      … which is to say, Thank you, Pat, for an excellent post that reveals the ulterior motives of MDOT.

  2. Andy SingerAndy Singer

    Nice piece, Pat …and I totally agree with the previous commenter. How does MnDOT expect to reduce state VMT when, every year, it spends hundreds of millions of dollars adding lane miles to the state’s highway network? Defund MnDOT indeed! We need a metro, a state and a federal Paving Moratorium. If we wanna reduce VMT, we should be removing or reducing highways, not adding new ones and additional lanes.

  3. Sheldon Gitis

    “Find the community groups’ letter and more information on the project (including those proposed the Logical Termini)”

    Maybe part of the problem, including the fatigue problem, is the meaningless, or at best confusing, techie jargon like “Logical Termini.” The jargon obscures what’s being proposed. When someone offers you “the Logical Termini”, you can bet you’re being scammed.

    Inevitably, MnDOT, as it always does, will propose increasing the volume and speed of the vehicles on the highway. Unless concerns are followed up with a credible, well-funded lawsuit, or the credible threat of one, the so-called “Environment Process” (more misleading techie jargon) has nothing to do with public input.

    The so-called “Environment Process” is a lot of very expensive paperwork, funneling 100s of millions of dollars into the pockets of AECOM/Kimley-Horn conglomerates and their government agency partners in crime. The AECOMs and Kimley-Horns get paid to permit the asinine concrete projects, not to stop them.

    When the idiotic, destructive, dangerous, obscenely costly to build and maintain projects are halted, it’s because BNSF or some other very well-funded entity gives MnDOT, the Met Council, the City and County traffic engineers and their AECOM/Kimley-Horn lawyers the middle finger, and unfortunately, after the government agencies and their consultants haul away $129M in “Environmental Process.”

    1. Trademark

      All logical termini is used to refer to is where they are studying the work. It’s not jargon. Originally in rethinking 94 phase 1 they were looking at from Broadway Ave to US 61 south exit. Now they are only looking between 35W and 35E. Those are the logical termini of the project scope.

      1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

        It is jargon, the definition of which is “specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, especially when viewed as difficult to understand by outsiders.” Is “logical termini” accessible language to the public? No.

      2. Sheldon Gitis

        So, if I understand you correctly, they’re studying the I94 right-of-way between 35E and 35W, and the highway east of 35E and west of 35W is irrelevant to what could be a study costing $100 million or more. Is that what “the logical termini” is referring to? And if so, why wouldn’t the Highway Department simply describe the EIS as a study of I94 from 35E-35W, rather than gunking up the process with ridiculous jargon like “logical termini?”

        1. David F

          Terminus is a railroad term for the “end of the line”. The original name of the city of Atlanta was “Terminus” because it was the last stop on the railroad at the time. I guess since it is a Latin word, it does sound a bit jargon-y.

          1. Dan MarshallDan Marshall

            I use the word “termini” all the time. As in, the bike lane on St Anthony Ave, a frontage road of I94, has termini at Prior and at Fry. Hence I can bike almost 3/4 of a mile along the freeway before I exclaim, “Alas, I have reached the terminus of this safe route and must now take the lane! I hope an inattentive driver doesn’t terminate me!” It’s very useful for our brains to keep this term in us!

  4. Paul Nelson

    I am having some difficulty learning how to write for Streets MN. One of the issues is what we call the structures we build. A highway is defined as a public way freely open to everyone. In my view, this means that everyone should be able to walk, pedal drive a bicycle, and roll in a wheelchair or some other non motorized form of mobility on a highway, not just car. How it is that we have built roadway systems and infra that can not be used unless an automobile is used, makes no sense to me. For the most part, most all roads and highways are motorway only in design. And we are all paying for it.

      1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

        Gas tax pays less than 50% of state highway costs, since the gas tax has not been raised to keep up with costs. The general fund pays. Freeways, like I-94, were originally paid for 90% by the federal government, and likely costs for the Rethinking I-94 project would be similar.

        1. Paul Nelson

          Yes, thank you Pat Thompson. You are correct. All of our motorway only systems are subsidized. I think “freeways” should be designated “expenseways”.

          1. Brian

            Which transit system in the Twin Cities is not subsidized? In fact, 40% of MVST goes to transit. ALL transportation has some sort of subsidy.

            I took the bus downtown and then to the North Loop every weekday prior to COVID. The tradeoff is time. I was spending an extra 30 to 60 minutes every day to ride the bus. Go to park and ride and wait five to ten minutes for a bus. Get downtown and wait ten to fifteen minutes for the transfer.

            I still have my Metropass, but I have made two round trips on the bus since COVID hit. Route 7 no longer goes into downtown at all so it has little value for me these days. My employer has offices in the Capella building and in the North Loop.

              1. Brian

                Earlier this year I was on the 7 and it only went down Washington due to construction. I was surprised it no longer went into downtown and ended up walking significantly further than I had planned on.

                I rode the 7 at least twice per weekday prior to COVID. I have mostly been working at home for 18+ months so no longer riding the 7 daily.

        2. Brian

          Please show me the numbers where gas tax, state motor vehicle excise tax, and vehicle registration fees only cover 50% of the cost of construction for STATE highways? I’ll wait. MNDOT collected $2.3 billion from motorists in FY 2020. MNDOT spends about $1 billion annually on state highway construction.

          I’ll readily admit that property taxes cover lots of road construction. However, it is unlikely that cities would build only sidewalks and bike paths in front of houses if all private motor vehicles were banned.

          1. Sheldon Gitis

            When it comes to the cost of the highways, $2.3 billion is a drop in the bucket. My guess is it cost nearly that much just to clean up the mess from the crashes. When you add all the other driving related costs, for land use, law enforcement etc., the $2.3 billion doesn’t even cover the operational costs, without even getting to the enormous and never ending, forever expanding, road construction and maintenance costs.

            Despite what MnDOT may like you to believe, the gas tax and motor vehicle fees do not come close to paying the costs of state highways.

            User fees and taxes don’t pay for law enforcement and clean-up after crashes. Nor do they fund federal matching grants.

            “MnDOT uses these funds (fees and taxes paid by motorists) to match federal funds on projects.”

            That’s a long way from “almost entirely” paying for the state highways. In order for motorists to pay anything close to the entire cost of the roads, gasoline prices would have to be much higher, as they are in countries where the gas tax actually does pay for the roads.

            1. Brian

              Why is it that if a pedestrian or bicyclist needs emergency services, it is fine for the general funds to pay, but if a motorist needs emergency services then that cost should be shouldered only by motorists? People who don’t like cars seem to sit around and think about any possible costs that could possibly have even the slightest possible link to cars and then allocate that cost to driving.

              I happen to think that every form of transportation should pay for itself, but only for actual costs, not for theoretical or social costs. Yes, driving would cost more. Transit would probably go away as ridership would likely drop dramatically if passengers had to pay the full cost.

              I’ve never anybody on bothered by the fact that transit passengers pay 33% of the costs of operating transit and none of the capital costs. Subsidies through taxes pay the rest.

              Europeans tax fuel heavily, but most of that tax doesn’t pay for car related expenses. Most of the tax money goes to healthcare and for social programs like better retirement, better unemployment, and paid paternity leave.

                1. Brian

                  We’ll have to agree to disagree. That article is assigning every possible thing they think is wrong with modern society to automobiles. The transit cost is not even close to accurate for Metro Transit. Metro Transit is at least $2 cost to society for every $1 in fare paid.

                  Transit sucks rocks in the Twin Cities. We’ll all be dead from a warming climate long before there is ever transit service within a ten minute walk of my house. Right now, it would take me three hours to walk to the nearest bus stop. Transit is a huge time suck if you do have service within a reasonable distance of your house. You might have to walk ten minutes to the bus stop, ten minutes on the bus, and another ten minute walk on the other end. If you own a car the drive would probably take less than half the time.

                  I was taking the 5 bus route from downtown Minneapolis to Abbott Northwestern on a twice weekly basis for a couple of months. That was a horrible experience. Crowded beyond belief and slow. One time I got off the bus a mile early and walked because I had to step off the bus at every stop so other passengers could get off. I then had to force my way back onto the overcrowded bus. If the weather was nice I often just walked from downtown to Abbott Northwestern rather than torture myself on the bus.

                  Yes, one can live without a car if you live in certain parts of St. Paul or Minneapolis and make the decision to only work within walking/transit/biking distance. Not owning a car means giving up going much of anywhere outside the city unless you want to pay for taxi or rideshare. I have family in Woodbury, Stillwater, and Arden Hills. Transit won’t get me there if I want to go see them. If you’re a DIY person it take a lot more planning to get materials without a vehicle, but it can be done. Siwek Lumber will deliver for a nominal fee.

                  1. Daftly

                    “I happen to think that every form of transportation should pay for itself”?

                    Why? Transportation is a service, not a profit-generating venture. Since when is the government supposed to “make” money? Do you hold that same standard to schools, the military, the sewer system, etc?

                  2. Paul Nelson

                    Basically Brian, you are right. The reality in this region and many places throughout the US and Canada is that we have not invested in public transit systems, or built our roadway systems to accommodate the bicycle and walkability safely as an option for people to get around. For many decades we have been building everything just for the automobile with the cultural expectation that everyone is supposed to use the car to go everywhere. And now the outcomes of that decision process is hurting all of us in many various ways. There currently are all kinds of problems with the I-94 corridor, but obviously it was designed and built just for the automobile. That roadway system, along 35W and many others within the two core cities and metro take up enormous amounts of geography and cost a great deal to maintain. And we have a winter climate and intermittently maintaining surface conditions for the automobile is very difficult to do in a timely manor, and results in all kinds of slippages and crashes at various times. The overall point is that a motorway only approach to transport does not work any where in the world, and it is very expensive and hurting all of us. We have a big country, so there is a clear application for the automobile. Likewise there is also a clear application for high speed rail and we have almost none of that in this country.

                    There is a recently produced You Tube channel where the author/presenter Jason Slaughter has very carefully and simply shows and explains many of the transport issues we all experience from the point of view of his living in the Netherlands and other parts of the world. He is married and has two children and they decided to move to the Netherlands to live;

                    That is just one point of view, but what I find amazing is that not only is the Netherlands a great place for all public transit and bicycle transport, but it is also described accurately as the best place in the world to drive a car. Both Jason Slaughter and Kareem on You Tube make the same point.

                    See this :

                    and this:

                    I have experienced some of the same problems you describe. I need to get a different primary physician because mine was transferred to another clinic 13 miles distant from where I live, and there is no public transit option and access by bicycle is at best, almost impossible and not safe. Only 13 miles. I have a co-worker who lives 21 to 25 miles from her place at work, and the public transit option takes over two hours.

                    Anyway, I hope we can make things better over time. and hopefully make the I-94 corridor better for everyone.

              1. Sheldon Gitis

                Regardless of whether or not the gas tax is dedicated to driving, or deposited in a general fund, European motorists, who pay much more for gasoline than US motorists, are paying more of the costs of driving than their US counterparts.

                Europeans do not have better social programs because they pay more for gasoline. Europeans have better healthcare and “better retirement, better unemployment, and paid paternity leave” because their healthcare and employment is regulated by government, not controlled by insurance cos., the pharmaceutical industry, large hospital corporations and other private business interests.

                Healthcare in the rest of the developed world is more universal, more comprehensive, and less expensive than healthcare in the US because the rest of the developed economies spend their healthcare dollars on healthcare rather than on insurance and drug company profits and administrative waste. Spending billions of dollars figuring out who’s paying for what and marketing a hodge-podge of confusing, screwball insurance policies is no way to run a healthcare system, or anything else, unless of course, you’re billionaire Bill McGuire, swimming in the loot the screwball system generates.

                “McGuire, who served as chief executive for 15 years and left United Healthcare last year after an independent counsel found evidence of backdating options, had accumulated more than $1.6 billion in stock options by the end of 2005.”

                Go Loons! And take Bill Mcguire with you.


  5. Dan MarshallDan Marshall

    MNDoT has substantially eroded trust in their charades of public process. One example is their redesign of Snelling Avenue, to which many community members in Midway devoted a lot of time and then nothing happened whatsoever. Another example was adding a lane to 94 after the 35W bridge collapse with no public process at all and then never removing it after the new bridge was completed.

    MNDot is the very definition of a corrupt state agency whose only goal is to increase capacity for drivers with no accountability to anyone else. They are not fit for purpose for fighting climate change, developing transit capacity, or promoting active transportation. I am very pessimistic that “Rethinking 94” will be any different in outcome than the recently completed never ending expansion of 35W.

    1. Brian

      How much did MNDOT actually expand 35W? The two main things they did were to move the MNPass lane from the shoulder to a regular lane and restore the shoulders. The only real expansion was adding a third lane on the southbound curve. I was actually pretty shocked they added that third southbound lane. I never noticed it in the plans.

      It is really hard for MNDOT to make 35W any wider in this area. They have used every inch of available space already without buying up property on one or or both sides of 35W. The city of Minneapolis has a policy that they will not approve any new freeway lanes within the city unless they are HOV or toll lanes. I am surprised the city approved the third lane southbound through the curve.

  6. Brian

    MNDOT’s current (and outdated) plan to rebuild I-94 though St. Paul has no additional lanes. The only change is to make the right lane continuous instead of the lane ending and restarting multiple times. MNDOT has been saying for ten to twenty years that the stretch of I-94 through St. Paul needs to be rebuilt.

    There will come a day soon when the issue comes to a head. Either rebuild I-94 or abandon it. Heavily used highways don’t last forever. It would be hard to get removing I-94 through the legislature, at least in today’s world. A lot of legislators will realize that voting for removing a major interstate would be the end of their political career.

    It would be an interesting experiment to remove I-94 and see what happens. It would be one of the largest highway removals in the USA. The cost will likely still be several hundred million to remove I-94, fill in the trench, and build all new roads and infrastructure. Anybody running a manufacturing plant or warehouse along I-94 would probably start looking for a new location along a different highway as soon as the project was announced. It would be far more difficult to move lots of freight without I-94. The question would then become do you remove I-94 all the way from 35E in St, Paul to 35W in Minneapolis, or leave the section up to highway 280? Do you remove Highway 280 because it no longer connects to a major highway at the southern end?

  7. Brian

    There are very real decisions about freeways in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul that will have to be made in the next 20 to 30 years. 35W all the way from downtown to I-494 has been rebuilt in the past 20 years so that stretch is likely not going anywhere. 35W from I-94 north to highway 36 is going to need rebuild within a decade or two.

    I-94 from 35E in St. Paul all the way to I-694 just north of Minneapolis is going to need a total rebuild in the next 20 years or so. Some stretches of I-94 already need rebuilding. I-94 in North Minneapolis is almost 40 years old already so it will be due for rebuild within 20 years at most. The Lowry tunnel is 50 years old and will likely need some sort of major repairs or rebuild before long.

    Removing any portion of I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul would certainly decrease traffic pressure on the Lowry tunnel. If the tunnel was closed there would be much less traffic on I-94 through North Minneapolis. If the tunnel were closed and I-94 through St. Paul removed then I-94 through the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis would really have no purpose other than to extend 35W through.

    1. Pine SalicaPine Salica

      All these decisions are incredibly real – and how can we make sure MNDoT takes an honest look at the impacts of car traffic through our cities that accounts for all the harms that they do? the fast deaths (car hits someone) the slow deaths (exhaust gives someone cancer) the remote deaths (co2 emissions causing more severe weather around the world).

      All of them need to be on the table as factors when we are considering what to do with an incredibly large amount of land area, spending a LOT of money, resources, and labor on whatever project we undertake, and whether the status quo is worth preserving.

      the 694-494 loop is shorter in miles traveled than the 94 “through” route, for those concerned about long-haul movement of goods by truck…

      1. Brian

        I’m pretty certain MNDOT has no authority to just abandon a major freeway. They would need legislative approval to do so. I don’t know how you convince the legislature because a lot of voters would be against this, There would be pluses and minuses to removing I-94 through St. Paul, but the pluses might outweigh the minuses.

        Trucks that are just passing through the Twin Cities don’t use I-94 through St. Paul. There are a lot of businesses close to I-94 through St. Paul that depend on trucks. Rocktenn has a lot of recycling delivered by truck. There is a whole industrial area near University and 280 that depends on trucks. The railroad has a large yard where railcars are unloaded onto trucks. The city would likely lose some good jobs as businesses leave to locations that are more truck friendly.

        1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

          You may note from my bio that I am from the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul, which is located at the interchange of I-94 and highway 280, adjacent to the WestRock plant (formerly called RockTenn) so I am well aware of these issues.

  8. Paul Nelson

    Thank you, Pat Thompson. Nicely done. We need a new direction for our transportation priorities and system.

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