The Feasibility of an I-94 Boulevard Conversion

Changes are coming to the 7.5-mile trench between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis now occupied by Interstate 94. Supporters of a proposed multimodal transportation corridor conversion are hoping newly introduced legislation will help their vision become reality.

I-94 looking east from the Seymour Avenue pedestrian bridge in Minneapolis (photo by author).

On February 27, 2023 Minnesota Senators Omar Fateh and Scott Dibble of Minneapolis, Clare Oumou Verbeten and Sandy Pappas of St. Paul, and Jen McEwen of Duluth introduced S.F. 2180, a bill to fund a highway-to-boulevard conversion feasibility study of the corridor. A House companion bill H.F. 2270 was introduced by Representatives Samantha Sencer-Mura of Minneapolis and Kaohly Vang Her and Leigh Finke of St. Paul. 

The bill would designate $600,000 to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to answer key questions about the boulevard idea that are not addressed in the project’s federally mandated Environmental Impact Statement, and to give affected communities and decisionmakers the information they need about the boulevard conversion in order to make informed decisions.

The 55-year-old highway infrastructure in the I-94 trench is failing. MnDOT controls the corridor and is working through a multi-year project it calls “Rethinking I-94,” a process of community engagement and planning to address and reflect the needs and preferences of the people who live, work, and learn near the highway in whatever happens next.

Neighborhoods weren’t consulted in the 1960s when I-94 first tore through entire blocks of long-established homes and businesses, devastating thriving Black communities and seriously harming many others. In the eight years since MnDOT kicked off the Rethinking I-94 project with a pledge to “do better,” there have been seismic changes in how cities treat urban highways. Instead of automatically rebuilding or expanding defunct freeways in attempts to temporarily ease congestion, some departments of transportation recognize that high speed roadways aren’t appropriate for cities, and are removing them.

A Boulevard Conversion Is an Option Worth Studying

Transportation advocacy group Our Streets Minneapolis has proposed converting I-94 from a limited-access urban highway into a multimodal asset they call the Twin Cities Boulevard (TCB or the “boulevard”). Broadly speaking, TCB would fill in the vast, football field-wide trench that now forms the highway bed. It would reconnect most of the north-south neighborhood streets now severed by the highway and replace the freeway with smaller, slower speed car lanes, dedicated transit lanes, protected bicycle trails and safe pedestrian infrastructure. Land reclaimed from the highway is proposed for community-owned development including residences, commercial space and parks.

A conceptual rendering of Twin Cities Boulevard at Dale Street in St. Paul. Image courtesy of Our Streets Minneapolis.

Recent examples of successful highway-to-boulevard conversions abound. In 2017 Rochester New York removed a section of its downtown-strangling I-490 Inner Loop. The project cost $22 million for removal, yielded $229 million in new development and was so effective that the rest of the freeway is now being evaluated for the chopping block. Additional cities across North America and around the world are rejecting the outdated highways that sever their communities.

The Twin Cities Boulevard joins another proposal for the future of the I-94 corridor. St. Paul nonprofit Reconnect Rondo has captured widespread attention and millions in state and federal funding to advance its plan to build a land bridge over a few blocks of the highway as the basis for revitalizing the historic Rondo community. It’s not yet clear whether the proposed feasibility study would address whether or how the two projects might function together to meet their objectives.

In the meantime, neighbors question what might happen if all 7.5 miles of the highway were converted from a polluted, noisy and unquestionably ugly speedway into what’s pitched as a tree-lined, active, people-centered multi-modal boulevard.

To see this vision through to implementation, Our Streets has sent volunteer and paid canvassers to knock on 15,000 neighborhood doors. Our Streets community engagement specialist Raquel Sidie-Wagner calculates that from February 2022 to today they’ve spoken in person to 3,000 highway neighbors.

At the start of the canvass, few neighbors had heard about either the boulevard or the land bridge, according to Sidie-Wagner, although that’s changing with their door-to-door visits. She reports that some of the most frequently asked questions her team hears when talking with neighbors include, “Is this really possible? Where will the semi-trucks go? How will this impact my commute?” And finally, neighbors ask, “How much will this cost?”

To answer these questions and many others, the proposed technical feasibility study funding bill would direct MnDOT to address:

  • Who uses the highway now: Where they are coming from and where they are going
  • How TCB would affect people’s transportation choices (mode split) among walking, bicycling, transit and driving
  • The boulevard’s effects on racial equity and environmental justice, including potential for displacement
  • Where existing highway traffic would go if not on the highway
  • How the boulevard would affect access for people with disabilities and transit-dependent riders
  • What TCB’s impacts would be on air pollution and climate emissions
  • How much revenue would be created for cities, counties and the state from new, taxable development and business activity in the corridor
  • How much the boulevard conversion would cost relative to highway repair, enhancement, or expansion

Residents Have Questions

Most of the recent work on Twin Cities urban highways has involved building new ramps, creating high-occupancy vehicle lanes and increasing speed limits. In other words, MnDOT has been building bigger, faster highways in our cities. A project of TCB’s size and scope with the goals of reducing and slowing traffic, reducing deaths and injuries in the corridor and improving the health of its neighbors has naturally created uncertainties.

Seymour Avenue stairs to access the I-94 pedestrian bridge in Prospect Park (photo by author).

Vince Netz has lived in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood within a block of I-94 for about 25 years. According to Netz, who is past president of his neighborhood association, “The freeway in Prospect Park is on an old railroad alignment. It didn’t really destroy the neighborhood here the way it did in St. Paul. It’s sort of invisible but it does split the neighborhood from the river. That’s too bad.” 

Still, Netz conceded, “It’s really convenient.”

Highway convenience is a theme heard often near the corridor — from real estate listings that tout proximity to the highway to neighbors who appreciate it for quick Midway Target runs. Even people who use the highway, though, think a boulevard feasibility study is needed. 

Netz continued with a downside, “Noise pollution is an issue for the people who live between the freeway and Franklin. They really got nailed with sound problems when the highway was built. [The noise] doubled or tripled. So they should study noise — absolutely. There was a big fight over it before my time when the wall went up. But the sound wall did not help.”

New I-94 highway sound wall installation on Roblyn Avenue near North Dewey Street, St. Paul, looking west (photo by author).

Merriam Park neighbor Erica Eilers also appreciated the highway at one time, buying two homes “practically on top” of I-94, first in the Wedge neighborhood in Minneapolis and later in St. Paul, where she has lived for six years. She used the highway for work commuting but now works remotely full time. Eilers laughed as she described when she first learned about the boulevard proposal on Twitter, saying, “It didn’t take me a split second to think OMG, yes, let’s do this!”

“I don’t enjoy being in a car, and the quicker I could get off the interstate and to my parking spot the better,” said Eilers. “My first two home purchases were on top of the highway, but I’d give that up in a heartbeat to have a healthy, enjoyable space.”

Eilers’ concerns for the feasibility study go deeper than aesthetics. She continued, “The most important part to me as far as collecting information for the study are the health impacts. That’s the data I’ll be most interested to see. There are a lot of people who live here. This is our home. As we learn more, it’s important as far as our health is impacted.”

Fairview Ave. under I-94 in a former commercial/residential district destroyed for highway construction (photo by author).

Eilers is an example of I-94 neighbors who are unaware of its serious health impacts, from heart disease and cancer to asthma and dementia. She continued, “I hadn’t really thought about the health impacts [of the highway] except for exhaust. But I’ve learned so much more on top of the physical pollution. Noise pollution is something I’ve always lived with and always accepted, but now I know there’s another way.”

None of those contacted for this article were more impacted by freeway proximity than April King, a software engineer who lives less than a block from I-94 near Allianz Field. King, a co-chair of her neighborhood association’s transportation committee, notes that freeway removal has been incredibly successful elsewhere but it’s a “hard sell” locally. She voiced a concern that looms large for many who live near the highway: Would their neighborhood streets fill with traffic when the highway was no longer available? “I would love to see a feasibility study show whether the ‘traffic evaporation’ seen in other cities as a result of freeway removal would happen here,” King said. “Would people take other routes on 494/694 to get to the other side of the city?”

Residents are also curious about the potential for boulevard-related city budget improvements. King explained, “It’s also important that the economic benefits of the boulevard be researched. Right now, I-94 provides essentially no tax benefits to a city with an already unenviable reputation for its terrible tax base. How much new business and taxable area would it bring to the city, and how would that benefit the rest of the citizens of the city by pushing down their property taxes?”

Freight rail over I-94, looking east from Pelham Boulevard in St. Paul (photo by author).

KJ Starr, executive director of the West Bank Business Association on the west end of the corridor, wants to learn how residents and visitors use the multiple highways, including I-94, that crisscross the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood today, practically eliminating the availability of further developable land.

“There are 10,000 people who live in our ZIP Code. These are folks living immediately adjacent to the freeway. It would be really interesting to learn to what extent our residents and businesspeople are actually using the freeway. My experience of the West Bank is hyper local. A lot of people doing business here also live here. We’re also a destination district, and from their perspective [business owners] it would be important to know how many people coming to their venues are using the freeways to come in,” said Starr, who pointed out the multiple bike trails, bike lanes and two connections to the Metro Transit Blue Line in the neighborhood. 

Starr also wants to learn more about how a boulevard conversion on I-94 would improve air quality and increase livability, igniting the “whole vibe of the business district” in Cedar-Riverside. “What would it be like if the neighborhood had this as a beautiful Parisian-style boulevard?” Starr wondered.

People most affected by I-94 have a lot of unanswered questions about what is even possible in the corridor. MnDOT should not ignore the successes other freeway dismantling projects have ignited, nor should it advance options for the Rethinking I-94 project corridor without a thorough analysis of a highway-to-boulevard option that takes into account community health, safety, racial equity, climate change, economic development and access. Residents must know how a boulevard or rebuilt highway would affect them and it is MnDOT’s responsibility to develop a serious technical response to every option.

Despite strong support from elected officials representing Minneapolis and St. Paul communities along the entire corridor, prospects for the highway-to-boulevard conversion feasibility study bill at the legislature are still unknown. To make your voice heard, contact the bill authors and your own state senator and representative.

Mary Morse Marti

About Mary Morse Marti

Mary is the former executive director of Move Minneapolis, an original founder of HOURCAR, and a writer and book author (Wonderful Without Religion, Women Changing Science) based in the Twin Cities.