Rethinking I-94: The Case for a Twin Cities S-Bahn

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) unveiled the front-running design alternatives for the long-awaited Rethinking I-94 project. This is the latest in a years-long decision-making process wherein lawmakers, residents and advocates have shared their visions of a more vibrant and livable I-94 corridor. The presentation, shared with MnDOT commissioner Nancy Daubenberger and members of the Policy Advisory Committee, included options such as an at-grade roadway, both with and without dedicated transit lanes; keeping the freeway as-is with no adjustment; and, much to the chagrin of public attendees and several committee members, a possible widening and lane reconfiguration.

Dale Street bridge overlooking I-94

Before these alternatives were revealed, MnDOT summarized the transit options for the corridor and how they fit into the scope of this project. Keeping the freeway would allow for managed lanes or shoulder-running buses, while an at-grade roadway could mean dedicated bus lanes with a fixed BRT (bus rapid transit) route. I was disappointed, but not altogether surprised, to find that all rail options for the current I-94 corridor had been eliminated from consideration — with some not being considered at all.

The reasoning for this decision was, to be blunt, an embarrassment. The graphic on the slideshow named just three types of rail transportation:

  • Light rail, with the Green Line pictured;
  • Commuter rail, accompanied by an image of the Northstar; and
  • High-speed rail, followed by a picture of a Japanese Shinkansen bullet train.

According to MnDOT, all rail options were lumped into these three categories, the third of which was not remotely applicable to Rethinking I-94. It seemed these options were present only for the sake of inclusion, as each was given only a broad definition and a hasty dismissal. Light rail was excluded because the corridor parallels the existing Green Line LRT on University Avenue, and therefore wouldn’t garner enough ridership to justify the expense. Commuter rail was likewise deemed unfit because this isn’t a “commuter corridor” of the sort that lines like the Northstar service, connecting suburban regions with stations “more than 10 miles apart”.

Evening Northstar departing Target Field

While the committee would go on to discuss several roadway options in-depth, commenting on the finer details and how they would impact specific portions of the corridor, they generalized all types of heavy rail under a narrow, outdated and oversimplified definition which, according to MnDOT, justified excluding both regional rail and subways from Rethinking I-94. If there was any more nuance or technical depth, MnDOT certainly didn’t communicate it during the meeting, nor did they make committee members aware of it.

In a vacuum, commuter rail has no place in a discussion of I-94 transit options. The corridor is much too short and does not connect distanced suburban regions to a core city. However, regional rail is more broadly defined; creating new rail right-of-way in the I-94 trench could connect Minneapolis’ Target Field to St. Paul’s Union Depot, thereby allowing through-running service for current and future routes. This is the shortcoming of MnDOT’s rationale — by considering the project corridor as a standalone commuter line, they failed to recognize the value of heavy rail in the context of a larger network.

As of now, each station is served by only one regional-rail line, namely the once-a-day Empire Builder in St. Paul (a long-distance route connecting Chicago to the Pacific Northwest) and the now twice-a-day Northstar commuter in Minneapolis (running from Target Field to the northwest suburbs). Connecting the two stations will be crucial as both cities anticipate added rail service.

Amtrak’s newest route, the Great River, will run an extra daily train between St. Paul and Chicago, and the recently funded Northern Lights Express to Duluth will return intercity service to Minneapolis for the first time since 1985. Proposed lines such as Rochester Zip Rail and a possible Eau Claire route would bolster Union Depot’s passenger throughput, while the return of pre-pandemic Northstar scheduling and the Dan Patch line would bring more travelers through Target Field. The proposed I-94 rail corridor would not be solely a commuter route, as MnDOT suggested, but rather the spine of a larger regional and intercity system.

A map depicting a hypothetical heavy rail alignment making use of the I-94 freeway trench
Hypothetical map of a unified Twin Cities regional transit network

Zwei Städte; Ein Netzwerk

This, in essence, is the foundation of a potential S-bahn, which isn’t a common term in North American transit. As the name suggests, these systems are ubiquitous in Germany and neighboring countries. The name “S-bahn” is derived from German words literally translating to “city train” or “rapid train.” S-bahns are flexible by nature, offering hybrid urban and suburban service in regions of varying density and demand. As such, they have universal applications, and it’s no surprise that many cities in Europe and overseas have adopted them.

Toronto’s newest ambitions for GO Transit follow the S-bahn model, as the region looks to modernize its expanding network. While some argue that a lack of electrification and poor station-adjacent land use disqualify the project from being considered true S-bahn, the underlying design principles are there — a hybrid solution that can provide local and express service for urban and suburban residents alike. This is something of a flagship project in North America, and possibly the first of its kind to take such heavy inspiration from European systems.

This, to my mind, is the most pragmatic and future-proof option for the Rethinking I-94 project. Whatever happens to the freeway itself — whether it’s narrowed, removed entirely for the vaunted Twin Cities Boulevard or capped, as the Reconnect Rondo vision advocates with a land bridge — a transit solution that focuses only on buses is a wasted opportunity. I would love to see an at-grade boulevard with dedicated transit lanes and a high-frequency BRT route. This is the vision shared by advocacy groups like Our Streets Minneapolis, which originally proposed the Twin Cities Boulevard. But BRT alone cannot alleviate the strain on our network, nor can it single-handedly address our future capacity issues.

A Green Line train crowded with soccer fans
Packed Green Line train after a Minnesota United FC match

I sometimes joke that, for a city, a crowded transit system is a good problem to have. It demonstrates consistent demand and strong ridership that would otherwise create nightmarish traffic volumes, and no amount of auto infrastructure could possibly accommodate that. That’s why I never mind being on a full train, thinking of all the car trips being replaced by a single vehicle, when I’m traveling in larger cities.

On the other hand, I waited half an hour this spring for a suburban express bus in Vancouver only for it to turn up with “BUS FULL! SORRY!” flashing on its screens. As a tourist, I got a chuckle out of this, but a commuter who relies on this route might be less inclined to use it if a non-boardable bus might make them late for work. In any city, it’s hard to have a conversation about getting people out of their cars when there’s no room on the bus. This is the danger of considering only current capacity needs and not how those needs will change as ridership grows and routes become more prolific.

One of the staples of a world-class transit network is its adaptability, and part of that is keeping up with population growth. By 2070, Minnesota is projected to gain an additional 850,000 residents. For the substantial fraction that will ultimately live in the Twin Cities region, can our network adapt to this population influx?

Many of our lawmakers may be inclined to see this as a “down the road” issue, but these challenges are becoming increasingly evident, especially in light of how rapid transit reacts to major events. I see it every time I take the Green Line to a Minnesota United match at Allianz Field in St. Paul. Sometimes, I ride it directly to the stadium; other times, I go to a local bar to meet up with supporter groups. In the hours leading up to the match, people gradually filter into the stadium right up until kickoff. They cheer, they sing. They drum, and they wave flags. A sold-out stadium of people will have their day made or ruined depending on whether a ball gets kicked into the right net.

The flags and smoke of the Minnesota United supporters' section
Celebrating a goal on the Wonderwall

And then, after the whistle blows signaling full time, 19,000 fans pour out of Allianz Field, sometimes celebrating, sometimes commiserating; sometimes continuing a rousing chorus of Wonderwall, sometimes shouting obscenities about the referee. As the matchgoers flood onto the Snelling Avenue light rail platforms by the hundreds, all transit in the area takes a hefty toll. The trains, running off of their typical schedules, get stuck at every possible red light on University Avenue. And when one finally arrives at the platform, it dwells for several minutes as riders attempt to cram themselves into an open car.

Just a tiny bit of demand for post-match transit

I particularly enjoyed last month, after an international friendly against FC Kaiserslautern, listening to a crossing guard explain to German fans that they had to walk to the next intersection and double back to get onto the platform despite standing right in front of the east entrance. For comparison, their home stadium sits immediately adjacent to Kaiserslautern HBF, one of seven regional rail stations in the city. Those fans were likely accustomed to a fast, smooth ride home on a high-capacity, heavy rail train, and I’d hazard a guess that it doesn’t get stuck at red lights.

This is the downside of running a rapid transit line fully at-grade, particularly when motor vehicles are so heavily prioritized in a corridor like University Avenue. Split-platform stations and the lack of signal priority add several layers of inconvenience for the average transit user, and these factors can sour their perception of transit in the Twin Cities. This inhibits potential mode shifts and massively stunts growth in ridership. More people stay in their cars, and it becomes that much harder to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of these issues can be addressed relatively easily. The Green Line, for instance, would massively benefit from universal signal priority (a necessity that Move Minnesota has been promoting for several years to enhance bus service). Stations could be rebuilt to eliminate split platforms, and in the long term, interlined track through downtown Minneapolis could be elevated to eliminate grade crossings. Even with these adjustments, the light rail is a predominantly street-running transit system with a high stop density.

The Green Line in particular has been instrumental in densifying the Midway corridor, creating a plethora of new housing and transit-oriented development. It is easily one of the greatest infrastructure investments our state has ever made. But on its own, it fails as a rapid connection between Minneapolis and St. Paul. A 45-minute trip time from downtown to downtown is not cutting it. With an express line in the I-94 trench, that trip could be made in 15 minutes with only one stop at Allianz Field, should the stadium and surrounding land blossom into a regional transit hub with plentiful housing and businesses.

A Seattle Sounder train at King Street Station with Lumen Field, home of the Seattle Sounders, in the background
Seattle Sounder gameday service for the Seattle Sounders

Making Rail a Reality

The Minnesota Legislature recently concluded one of its most productive sessions in recent history. Our state’s lawmakers funded several transit projects, emphasizing the need for improvement in our existing system and the creation of new local, regional and intercity routes. Minnesota has shown that it’s committed to establishing a future-proof network, building a system that can adapt to the needs of tomorrow, not just today. This year’s legislative session has adjourned, but Rethinking I-94 is an ongoing initiative. Rail transit may have been excluded as an official project option, but by no means is it off the table.

If you support a rail option making use of the freeway trench, whether a light metro or the beginnings of a full S-bahn, visit MnDOT’s website and look for public engagement opportunities. Several members from the most recent Policy Advisory Committee spoke about upcoming events to gather public feedback. Communicate to them that rail was never legitimately or fairly considered and demand flexible, system-specific design options.

  • Connect with local advocacy groups — Our Streets Minneapolis, Reconnect Rondo and Move Minnesota, among others — and ask how you can support transit, walkability and bikeability goals.
  • Reach out to project officials and share your personal priorities for Rethinking I-94.
  • If you live on the corridor, share your experiences! If not, speak to how the broader Twin Cities region will benefit from sustainable infrastructure.

The final design is still four years from being selected. Right now is the perfect time to get involved. And in 2027, when a brighter future is unveiled, you will be the reason it was made possible.

Jesse Cook

About Jesse Cook

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Third year aerospace engineering student (UofM) | Transit and housing advocate | Loons enjoyer