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.