It’s hard to hold public officials accountable at an Accountability Forum if they don’t attend.
Despite the lack of representation from the mayors of Minneapolis or St. Paul or the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), staff from Our Streets Minneapolis presented a pithy version of its vision to about 40 people at its July 19 Twin Cities Boulevard Accountability Forum, including a few elected reps or their aides.
Transportation Policy Coordinator Alex Burns set out the basics of MnDOT’s Rethinking I-94 project, which covers 7.5 miles between the downtowns of the Twin Cities. “The interstate is at the end of its useful life, so now is the time to do collective community visioning and buy-in,” he said. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine and repair the past and present harms. “Whatever is done in the corridor will affect eight neighborhoods in the two cities, and will have five to six decades of impact.”
- One in 20 Minneapolis residents lost their homes to I-94, I-35 or Highway 55 (24,000 people total).
- Six thousand people were displaced in Saint Paul.
- Eighty percent of Black residents in Minneapolis lived in areas where highways were routed.
- Eighty percent of St. Paul’s Black population lived in Rondo.
- These communities were specifically targeted.
What is less remembered is that the harms are ongoing. The impact never stopped: Maps show it. “Highways are rivers of pollution in the communities through which they run,” Burns said — levels are 2.5 times worse than deemed safe by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Ninety-four percent of the I-94 corridor area is of concern for environmental justice. Asthma hospitalization rates in the project corridor are more than nine times the state average.
- At the same time, households in the I-94 corridor are less likely to have cars — carlessness is four times higher than in the region overall and two times the rate within the two cities.
- The highways were promised as an economic boon, but median income decreases near the corridor. Rethinking I-94 needs to invest in the nearby communities.
- And then there are climate effects. Reducing driving requires big investments in infrastructure to decarbonize transportation.
The Boulevard Vision
At its simplest, the Twin Cities Boulevard would:
- Replace the I-94 trench with a multi-modal boulevard, reconnecting all neighborhoods.
- Restore housing and business spaces. There’s a football field’s width of space: the Boulevard vision is based on turning the land over to land trusts, keeping public land public.
- Implement policies to prevent displacement and advance reparative justice. Our Streets’ experience with Bring Back Sixth, working with the Harrison Neighborhood Association, is an example of this kind of work.
Examples of highway removal are shown on the Twin Cities Boulevard website. Rochester, N.Y. is a recent one. Larger, more well-known examples are the Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Cheonggye Expressway in Seoul.
Three community members spoke about their support for the Boulevard vision.
Catherine Reid Day, volunteer doorknocker. Catherine grew up in Des Moines and remembers the interstate coming through, taking out a lot of homes and dividing her from easy access to her high school. While door-knocking with Our Streets in Union Park, she met a man on Marshall Avenue who talked about the businesses he used to be able to walk to that were wiped out by I-94.
Abdulrahman Wako, executive director of Union Park District Council. Although UPDC has endorsed the Boulevard vision, he said he was speaking as a resident who has lived near I-94 for four years, with only train tracks separating him from the highway. He agreed that it’s a river of poison. “I-94 dilutes the community and takes away the health of the community,” he said. Recently while camping in Grand Marais and the BWCA, he saw how quiet it is, how sweet the air is. Then coming home made him realize how polluted the air at home is, and that it’s hard to hear himself. “Why didn’t I know that where I’m living isn’t conducive to a healthy lifestyle? Because I am assimilated to it.” What happens with this highway will affect future generations, he said — “the choices that we make must be best for the future, both for climate and health. We have to make different choices to get the future we say we want. We have to realize the contradiction of rebuilding while saying you want something different in the future. We have to have the courage and fortitude to make new choices.”
Zak Yudhishthu, Macalester Groveland Community Council student rep, member of Sustain Saint Paul and a Streets.mn contributor. He is excited for the public space, reconnection of urban fabric, and putting land toward repairing past harms, housing and community businesses. But one of the most important reasons for the Boulevard is climate. “As a young person, I’m used to inheriting decisions made by generations before — this is a chance to not make another bad decision leading to climate harms.” He grew up in Oregon, which is destroyed by wildfires every year, and getting worse. Private car trips are a big contributor to carbon use, he said. “We need to invest in not shoving cars through our cities.”
Community Engagement and Support
- Our Streets canvassers and volunteers have knocked on 4,900 doors since February in Seward, Rondo, Frogtown, Hamline-Midway, Union Park and Cedar-Riverside.
- Ten to 20 percent of people open their doors.
- Of those, 95 percent support the Boulevard as an option or the option, with 1 percent disagreeing and 2 percent unsure.
- What people like about it: it’s ambitious (climate/environmental justice), it addresses the whole corridor, transit/walkability/parks, health and returning neighborhoods.
They’ve had 425 survey responses through their website:
- Primary positives identified about the Boulevard were faster transit, space for housing and businesses, ease of crossing, greater accessibility, space for markets and community gardens.
- Biggest questions: how will traffic be affected and how will the conversion be funded?
Our Streets is currently asking leaders for three things:
- That MnDOT include the Boulevard in the list of project alternatives
- That MnDOT amend the Rethinking I-94 Purpose and Need documents to allow fair consideration of the Boulevard, and that edits include changes from the October 2021 community letter
- That the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul apply for a Reconnecting Communities planning grant to study a highway to boulevard conversion
The new MnDOT commissioner sent a letter in late spring committing that a highway-to-boulevard conversion would be evaluated as an alternative within Rethinking I-94. But there are other aspects of the Boulevard vision that are important, particularly about reparative justice, so this commitment is not sufficient, according to Our Streets.
The Reconnecting Communities grant has an October 13 deadline. The grants are specifically set up to repair harms caused by past infrastructure, and should be used to study conversion. Our Streets is asking that the grant application be written to holistically evaluate the project impact and be led by a firm without a financial interest in highway expansion/rebuilding, but rather that has experience with conversions.
It would be a grant application filed by the two cities (so contacting the mayors, heads of Public Works, city council members) — but Our Streets is also asking MnDOT, counties, and Met Council to support it.
So far Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley and Minneapolis City Council Member Robin Wonsley have spoken of their public support for the Twin Cities Boulevard, and Wonsley has supported the grant application publicly.
Because neither mayor’s office was represented at the forum, Our Streets closed out the Accountability Forum by urging people to call them (Jacob Frey: 612-673-2100, Melvin Carter: 651-266-8510).
- Share your support (what is one reason why you support the Twin Cities Boulevard for Rethinking I-94?).
- Highlight the Reconnecting Communities grant program, which allows study of the highway to boulevard conversion idea to evaluate impacts on equity, transportation access and climate.
- Ask for their support for their city to apply by October 13.
Our Streets Minneapolis plans to hold another Accountability Forum on September 27 — just a few weeks before the Reconnecting Communities grant application deadline.