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.

28 thoughts on “The Feasibility of an I-94 Boulevard Conversion

  1. Noah Whiteis

    This whole article is pushing a ridiculous “solution” to a corridor that needs further expansion to keep traffic moving and maintain the economic vitality of nearby industries. I think an HOT lane along with removing lane drops from several substandard portions (280, Snelling) should be pursued. The impact of “pollution” is overstated in most public health studies, and persons choice to live near a thoroughfare is their own. I also am disgusted by this selfish narrative that we should benefit property owners and residents along an existing corridor while diverting traffic to other thoroughfares. Neighborhoods consulted? local persons should have no input to projects which are important avenues of regional mobility and interstate commerce other than their elected representatives. All-in-all this is a terrible idea, that should be terminated right now early in the planning process to avoid any further regional harm to both businesses and persons.

    1. Joe Steinbronn

      “persons choice to live near a thoroughfare is their own”

      I’d recommend reading up on the initial construction of I-94 through the Rondo neighborhood before making comments like this.

      1. Noah Whiteis

        Persons can move or gain better socioeconomic conditions via their own initiative. Also I really don’t believe you have an individual property right to any property beyond the bounds of your house (including future ROW). I live near a freeway and would reject any notion that I should individually or just by virtue of living near the thoroughfare have any outsized impact in the planning of such thoroughfare in the future.

        1. Joe Steinbronn

          Then why are you so “disgusted” at other thoroughfares having increased traffic, or asking why neighborhoods aren’t consulted? It sure sounds like you think a change in access to a public good is a de facto property right, just for certain groups and not others. And the author wasn’t making an argument that individuals in a neighborhood have an individual property right to a public good – that’s your strawman – but that the safety and community of those neighborhoods should be considered.

          1. Noah Whiteis

            I do not believe anything regarding public thoroughfares is a “right”, including the “right” to live or not live near one or to have one to utilize (although the courts have ruled that access is a property right). I do from a policy perspective think that “consulting” local communities is just bad public policy, and that technical decisions regarding freeways should be decided to maximize regional mobility especially with a significant corridor such as I-94, therefore benefiting the broadest constituency.

    2. Mary Morse MartiMary Morse Marti Post author

      “To a corridor that needs further expansion to keep traffic moving.” Learn about induced demand here:
      “The impact of ‘pollution.'” Various studies on highway traffic effects on human health:
      “And persons [sic] choice to live near a thoroughfare is their own.” See redlining:
      “I am also disgusted by this selfish narrative.” The highway was built to support suburban development. Perhaps it is time to take turns.

      1. Noah Whiteis

        #1 Induced demand is a ridiculous concept, no one questions when a municipality extends a sewer line and citizens shockingly start to use the service. It is better termed latent economic activity, cities which better foster mobility are encouraging more economic activity benefiting all persons. Furthermore there is a functional limit to how much traffic can be “induced”, just because US-14 was recently upgraded to a freeway in Southeast Minnesota doesn’t suddenly result in it being over capacity, because additional traffic will suddenly be “induced”.
        #3 Epidemiological studies are notoriously problematic, and there is most likely a whole host of factors leading to higher overall morbidity within the I-94 corridor.
        #4 Yes, historical injustices like redlining existed, but I really doubt the majority of the corridor is inhabited by persons who were living in the corridor in 1965. Furthermore it is true that freeways depress land nearby land values, but is this really a problem? attracting lower income persons to home ownership versus problematic multifamily renting is a good thing.
        #2 The current alignment of I-94 was chosen primarily to suit the needs of the midway business concerns, allowing suburban and urban traffic to reach destinations in St. Paul, allowing the subsequent area to be economically competitive. I used to frequent a bunch of industries in Midway for certain automotive needs and the feedback from their side was that removing I-94 would necessitate them moving elsewhere, I really don’t think that is a better outcome for the community. Furthermore I-94 serves a decent amount of traffic between both city centers as well as suburban traffic, I think it’s a little bit disingenuous to indicate that the sole purpose of I-94 was to serve traffic from the far reaches of the metropolitan area.

      2. Mrs. Mendez

        As someone who lives on the east side of Minneapolis just over the St. Paul border, I use the 94 frequently. It’s not just for suburban use.

        Also, does anyone on the extreme left realize that minorities tend to have more than 1.3 children? Speaking from experience, pushing people away from using personal vehicles is a privilege for white people with no or one kid. When you have four or five or six…pushing all those kids onto transit with their exhausted mother is pretty shitty. Also privilege: the woman interviewed who gets to work from home. Good for you; that won’t be benefit the majority of the people living off the 94.

        I’m from California and agree with the poster who said the San Francisco freeways are NO comparison to this. The 94 connect is to Wisconsin. You simply cannot compare that to the runway that was the Embarcadero freeway.

        While the boulevard looks beautiful, it is a Utopian ideal. Freeways are not “outdated”; anyone who drives the 94 as much as I do knows that is a very silly statement. Undoing a wrong from 60 years ago does nothing to help the people of today who have adapted and now utilize the very thing that once stole homes away.

        *Also, to Noah, the Snelling exit is extremely useful during the state fair! Let’s not take that away.

        1. marumari

          Nobody is suggesting removing I-94’s connection to Wisconsin. Anyone wanting to go from Wisconsin to the Dakota’s already gets routed to 694 by mapping applications as it a consistently faster interstate highway connection than taking I-94 through the cities.

        2. Todd Cummings

          I have similar views, that undoing or changing the layout of 94, does not nessasarily affect the people or families that live along the corridor today. If the people, that were displaced were still living there today, I can see the project as being beneficial. I just don’t know if reconnecting side streets has the “Feel good affect” for those who we’re not even living there in the 60s.

          Turning back the neighborhood does not benefit the people who no longer live there, only those who live there today and in the future.

          However, the area is the heart of St. Paul, the area is in need of attention

    3. Lucas Clasen

      Ah yes, some HOT lanes will surly fix everything, nothing else to fix here! Do you have any evidence to back up the things that you are claiming? How do you know that pollution studies are overstated, are you out there collecting the samples or analyzing the data? Why should a corridor that has created so many issues not try and benefit the neighborhood now? I mean, we have a high-capacity beltway already encircling the metro, would this not be sufficient for mobility and regional commerce? I don’t see why we couldn’t make such a concept work, it works in many, many other cities around the world (perhaps we would also need a high speed rail line to complement it, but I digress). You strike me as a fuddy-duddy who scoffs at any change that could have the potential of inconveniencing you, even if it benefits society as a whole.

    4. Zak Yudhishthu

      For someone using the language of markets and property rights, I’m surprised to see no discussion of externalities. When people drive, it creates a lot of externality costs via air and noise pollution. Through markets (for land and housing), someone always faces this consequence. Meanwhile, the drivers are insulated from most of the costs of their actions. As a result, we lose out on a lot of social welfare. Any analysis that references the markets for land near freeways (“persons’ choice to live near a thoroughfare is their own”) is incomplete without discussing that point.

  2. Rob H.

    Its also worth noting that the freeway removal projects that I often see cited as success stories are significantly less traveled that 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul. I-490 in Rochester, which the post references, saw traffic volumes of 10,500 per day. I-94 routinely sees 10-15x that amount per day.

    With that said, pushing a study for an unrealistic solution like removal is a waste of taxpayer money and distracts from grassroots efforts that actually have community buy-in/leadership such as the Reconnect Rondo land bridge.

  3. April King

    @Rob H: Some better examples would be the Embarcadero Freeway (60k vehicles/day) and Central Freeway (93k vehicles/day) in San Francisco, both of which have been removed to pretty fantastic success. Another would be the West Side Highway in New York City, which carried 140k vehicles/day) before its removal.

    Probably the best example of a roadway similar to I-94 would be the Cheonggye Freeway in Seoul, which carried 168k vehicles/day, and which, like I-94 had a lot of traffic that was passing through the cities. It was replaced with a park that attracts 90k visitors per day and a ton of new businesses, which collectively have added over 100k new jobs and generated long-term benefits estimated at approximately $25B USD.

    1. Jim

      All those removal projects referenced in the US were freeway spurs that served little regional/state/national mobility and were much more limited in scope than this proposal – 101 freeway to Octavia was about a quarter mile of a freeway that terminated at Hayes anyway, Embarcadero was a half-finished freeway that partially collapsed from an earthquake and terminated only about a mile from the Bay Bridge. The west side highway in NYC straddled the fringe of Manhattan in a city with actual rapid service and alternatives for residents to get around, and no, an at-grade BRT that duplicates service of the LRT 2 blocks north will not provide any sort of adequate mobility for what would be removed. Seoul is obviously not a serious comparison as the density and transit service of the city is laughable to even think that it could be used as an example for the Twin Cities. Fact is there is no example of a mainline interstate that has been removed for multiple miles anywhere, and certainly no example of that being done in a metro with such inadequate mass transportation options as ours – completely ignoring the freight implications of course as well.

      Was the original routing a mistake? Of course, but boulevarding 5 miles of I-94 and offering really no alternatives to the massive mobility losses that would entail is just not a serious solution.

  4. Scott

    Thank you for this well written article, which does a nice job of updating readers about where this project stands. I’m very keen to learn whether the study gets funded and the results. I have concerns, however, that Twin Cities Boulevard would become a ‘freeway light’ similar to Olson Memorial Highway and Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. These roadways remain dangerous, polluting and divide communities, just not in a freeway trench. Plus, they don’t move cars that effectively either.

    1. Lou

      As Mary says:
      “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.”

      That is nothing like Olson Memorial Hwy or Hiawatha Ave.

      The key here is that, not only are you reducing car infrastructure, you’re adding and prioritizing transit, walking, biking, & rolling. Indeed, residents, workers, shoppers, & visitors need to move around. But we have to change how people move around.

      And this sounds like the way to do it.

      A highway cap, proposed by MNDOT, literally buries the problem, and does nothing for climate change. It’s still a huge freeway for cars.

  5. Brian

    What happens to all the jobs that are supported by trucks coming in on I-94? I guess Highway 36 will end up with total gridlock during rush hour when traffic moves off I-94. Even if just 10% of I-94 traffic were to shift to hwy 36 that would push hwy 36 over the brink.

    Where would the hundreds of millions come from to tear out I-94, fill in the trench, and build out city streets? I am not sure it be legal to use the highway trust fund money since it would no longer be a state highway. How would the city of St Paul afford to maintain more miles of city streets when it can’t afford the streets it already has?

    1. marumari

      By all estimates, replacing I-94 with a boulevard would be far, far cheaper than the I-94 replacement work that needs to be done due to it reaching its end of life. Filling in a trench and replacing it with at-grade city roads ($1M/mile) is a lot cheaper than a freeway ($10M/mile), not to mention that almost all of the bridges over I-94 are due to be replaced as well.

      1. Dan H

        What estimates exactly? Its a lot more complicated than “filling in a trench.” This is a project that will cost billions.

      2. Brian

        There is not a chance you’re removing the highway infrastructure, filling the trench, installing utilities, and building new roads for less than $10 million total. I would be shocked if the cost is less than several hundred million dollars.

        The state will pay for the rebuild of I-94. The state may pay for removing I-94. All of the new streets would likely become the responsibility of the city of St. Paul. The city of St. Paul can’t afford the streets it already has. Currently, city streets in St. Paul are on a rebuild cycle of 100 years. (At the current pace a St. Paul street rebuilt in 2023 won’t be rebuilt again until after 2123.)

  6. Jasper GreenJasper Green

    I think this is a great post because it opens up a conversation around a future role for I-94 in St. Paul.

    I-94 is currently both a physical and social rift. It is an example of urban planning used as a destructive force, where the highway just “happened” to be built through a neighborhood with many Black-owned businesses and homes. According to YCWA, “Hundreds of millions of dollars of community wealth was lost.”,mixed%20white%20and%20indigenous%20heritage.

    I also think this option is more realistic than the land bridge option. If this does happen, it will be crucial to research how to prevent gentrification and displacement in this area.

  7. John Moltzen

    I guesa I just dont understand so basically, you guys want to eliminate 8 miles of 70MPH freeway that directly connects Mpls/St.Paul and replace it with 8 miles of, basically, Grand Ave or Lake Street? And then force everybody who doesnt want to wait at 300 stoplights to get from one city to the other to take a roundabout non-direct route on the already overly congested. Inadequate loop freeways, which will be expected to now handle 2 or 3 times the current traffic? This seems like complete lunacy to me….. Ultra left leaning, higher tax advocating politically liberal minneapolis resident, BTW. This idea just feels like a nonsense fantasy, to me, however.

    1. Rob H

      Ironically, in this scenario, Grand Ave and Lake Street would be even more miserable to drive due to the amount of traffic using alternate routes displaced by 94 being gone. University would be even more dangerous for pedestrians and transit users as well.

  8. Scott BergerScott Berger

    As someone who commutes and takes multiple trips a day (by car) using I-94–I couldn’t be more in favor of the TCB conversion and concept. Saint Paul badly needs both the tax base and housing, and has plenty of E-W thoroughfares without the freeway. Even if the vision were somehow misguided, we should at very least be studying it at this juncture. If people like me who use it daily want it removed, that is pretty damning to the ethos of this urban freeway.

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