Transit isn’t always an improvement. Sometimes it’s just as bad or worse than highways. Take the Gold Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. This project was designed to bring commuters from the East Metro into downtown Saint Paul along interstate 94. If Metro Transit had converted two existing lanes of I-94 into High Occupancy Vehicle lanes and run buses on them, this might have been a worthwhile project. Instead, Metro Transit and Ramsey County are spending over half a billion dollars to construct a ten-mile, dedicated two-lane BRT guide-way next to I-94. This is basically a huge freeway expansion. The project is putting asphalt and motor vehicle infrastructure closer to adjacent neighborhoods and wiping out green space and real estate that could have been used for development.
The construction of I-94 and its predecessor, Highway 12, already wiped out part of the Hudson Road/Earl Street commercial district. The south side went from having businesses and a trolley station to a freeway with an overgrown sound wall.
Now, the Gold Line BRT project threatens to destroy this area further, obliterating the old sound wall, green space and some potentially develop-able land (photos below are from late September).
The end of the BRT guide-way at Mounds Boulevard will expand an already horrible six-lane off-ramp to seven lanes. Crossing this off-ramp via the Third/Kellogg Bridge is the only lighted, never-flooded, non-secluded bicycle and pedestrian connection from downtown Saint Paul to its East Side neighborhoods. The city will soon be reconstructing the Third/Kellogg bridge with good bike/pedestrian paths but, when those cyclists and pedestrians get to the top of the bridge, they’ll have to cross 5 lanes of traffic plus two additional lanes of BRT, making it slightly more dangerous and awful to cross than it already is.
Several other Gold Line BRT stations could be similarly destructive. Some could end up becoming glorified “park and ride” lots.
Worst of all, the Gold Line is based on pre-pandemic travel projections when people were still commuting into downtown Saint Paul on a daily basis. Post pandemic, however, people are working from home and lots of downtown Saint Paul office space is vacant. So the Gold Line may end up being an empty waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, and a project that damages rather than benefits the city.
You can debate this evaluation of the Gold Line. Some claim that the stations will benefit local neighborhoods and the project will be very successful, and I sincerely hope my assessment is wrong. But one thing is certain: In 2023, it’s impossible to add twenty lane miles of concrete, bridges and asphalt to our highway system and claim that the project is “environmental” or that it will reduce climate change or help adjacent neighborhoods–and these are the supposed “goals” of public transit.
Transit projects are not automatically “good” and the details of how a project is done can make it a success or failure. With this in mind, let’s look at the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s proposals for “Rethinking I-94”.
Interstate 94 is now over 55 years old and portions of its roadbed and bridges are in need of reconstruction. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink a highway that mortally damaged our downtown and various neighborhoods including Rondo and parts of Frogtown. If we get this right, we could greatly improve our city. If we get it wrong, nothing will change or, potentially, things could get worse.
In response to community pressure and activism, The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is currently soliciting public feedback on a number of proposals for rebuilding Interstate 94. They are doing this at open houses and via an online survey. The proposals range from widening the highway to reducing it to a surface boulevard. Unfortunately, the various options proposed by MnDOT lack important details, details that could make this project a success or failure.
There are three important considerations for Rethinking I-94 or any urban transportation project–
- Does the project free up develop-able real estate currently occupied by a highway? If so, how much real estate could a city hope to get back?
When freeways were slammed through American neighborhoods in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, a lot of real estate had to be destroyed to make room for them. These were residential, commercial and retail buildings that paid property tax to the city. Property taxes are how cities fund schools, public safety, libraries, social services and much of their infrastructure. By destroying thousands of properties, I-94 and other freeways gutted Saint Paul’s property tax base. Here’s a map from 1953 depicting one interchange of the then “proposed” interstate 94 in Minneapolis. It shows each property that had to be destroyed in order to build it.
There are at least 100 properties just for this one interchange. Conservatively, lets assume a property tax of $5000 per property per year, as many of these were big, multi-story apartment buildings. This one interchange therefore costs the city a half-million dollars per year in lost revenue. Now multiply this one interchange by 100 for all the properties destroyed by I-94, I-35E, I-35W, Highway 52, Highway 55, Highway 610 and others. You’ll see that, conservatively, the cities lose over $50 million per year in property tax revenue, a lot of which is going to subsidize suburban drivers to come in, earn money and leave. This property tax revenue was replaced by debt– local and state contributions for maintaining the highways, plowing them, patching them and, periodically repaving and reconstructing them as well as their access roads, overpasses and other “peripherals”. When cities like Portland, Milwaukee, San Francisco and others took down old freeways, they were able to put taxable real estate on portions of the land the freeways occupied and recoup some of their tax base.
So, when looking at the various options presented by MnDOT, particularly ones that involve eliminating some portion of the freeway “trench”, it’s important to consider how much real estate a given option might return to the city. Clearly a surface boulevard or converting the freeway to a sharp “cut” that eliminates the sloping sides with retaining walls would return some freeway trench real estate and tax base to the city.
- The second question for I-94 and other highway or transit proposals to answer is this: Does a given transportation project or proposal increase connectivity across a given street or roadway or would it decrease it?
Besides destroying property and tax bases, freeways severed our neighborhoods from one another. At most, I-94 has pedestrian, bicycle or car crossings at two block intervals. In some places (like between Pelham and Cleveland or parts of the East Side), there’s no good bike or pedestrian crossing for almost a mile! As a result residential areas get cut off from grocery stores, from jobs, from transit, and from each other. So, when looking at the various I-94 options, we must ask whether a given option would increase connectivity across the highway or boulevard.
- Finally, we should ask ourselves if a given transportation project or proposal improves the quality of life for adjacent neighborhoods in terms of noise, air-pollution, speeding, crashes, etc.
None of the options for I-94 presented by MnDOT are rated according to these three criteria, nor do they offer any details about things like intersection treatments, overpasses and other critical information. Yet the success or failure of a given option will depend on the details of how it’s implemented.
Evaluating the Options
The proposal renderings presented by MnDOT are not to scale. A surface boulevard, for example, would not take up as much land as their renderings depict. Adjacent streets (like Concordia and St Anthony Avenues) are not always shown at the correct scale or distance from each highway proposal. So you have to use your imagination.
Overall, the surface boulevard options (“At-Grade – A” and “At-Grade – B”) seem most appealing. They would allow the city to recoup a lot of real estate that is currently used up by the sloped highway trench and the freeway itself. A surface boulevard would also eliminate a lot of the highway peripherals like on and off ramps, which are hazardous to bicyclists and pedestrians. When it comes to “connectivity” and “Quality of Life” however, a lot depends on implementation.
My ideal for a reasonably successful surface boulevard with transit, bike and pedestrian access would be similar to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. Here, every other cross street is a signalized intersection. All the signals are synced up so that, even if you want to walk across the street at an un-signalized intersection, the two adjacent ones will be red at the same time, allowing you to cross safely. Also, the synced traffic signals allow traffic, including transit, to move at a reasonably efficient speed and manner, minimizing starts and stops, which reduces noise and particulate emissions from engines, tires and brake disks, particularly from trucks and buses. Also, the structure of Ocean Parkway puts a planted buffer and parked cars between the buildings and the street so the pedestrian and bike areas feel safe and living along it is not unappealing (as measured by its real estate values).
Could we get a surface boulevard like Ocean Parkway? It depends. Snelling Avenue is a surface boulevard but it’s a disaster. With signalized intersections that can be as much as a half-mile apart, it severs and negatively impacts most of the areas through which it passes and has some of the highest pedestrian crash rates in the state. It is but one example of the failure of MnDOT, Metro Transit and our county and local DOTs to design pedestrian and bike friendly arterial boulevards that don’t cut neighborhoods in half.
Another example is University Avenue. Metro Transit and project engineers could have reduced it to one travel lane in each direction. After all, it has a parallel freeway two blocks away. This would have allowed dedicated left and right turn lanes with bus pull-outs, while retaining most of the on-street parking. Instead, they forced through two travel lanes in each direction, greatly reduced on-street parking, and closures of many cross-streets to speed LRT travel times. The result turned University into a “transportation chute” where high-speed traffic runs right next to sidewalks, errant vehicles frequently hit buildings, and pedestrian crashes are higher than before the project was implemented. It took the NAACP suing project managers to get the three additional transit stations put into what were largely African American and immigrant neighborhoods, while the construction phase business impacts were badly managed, resulting in many business closures.
If a bad surface boulevard design for I-94 results in less cross-street connectivity (in an effort to speed BRT times), more start and stop heavy traffic and resulting increases in noise and particulate pollution, then the resulting surface boulevard could be almost as bad as what we have now. So details are very important.
With this in mind, the “Reduced Freeway With Retaining Walls” could be almost as appealing. Eliminating the slopes of the freeway trench, would enable real estate to be built on this land. Concordia and St Anthony Avenues could become normal streets with housing on both sides. The retaining walls also offer the possibility of covering or “capping” the freeway for stretches, similar to what is being proposed by ReConnect Rondo or what used to be called “cut and cover.” So an alley or park/yard space could be put over the highway in many areas. New York and other cities have covered freeways and put real estate and parks on top of them. The United Nations and many large apartment buildings on Manhattan’s east side are built on top of the FDR Drive. Park Avenue is built over a major commuter railroad line. Many subway systems were built using cut and cover techniques. Something like this could increase north-south connectivity and reduce impacts on adjacent neighborhoods nearly as much as a well designed surface boulevard.
Alas “cut and cover” isn’t really discussed or proposed in the conceptual renderings that MnDOT is presenting. The “Reduced Freeway – A, with Retaining Walls” is the closest thing to it, and this option would still require on and off ramps and some of the existing highway peripherals. We could ultimately end up with a hybrid of the previous two options (or other options), where I-94 becomes a boulevard in some places and a reduced highway running in a cut in others.
This Is Important
As you take the MnDOT survey, keep all these things in mind. There are places on each option to write detailed comments, and you should share your comments with your neighbors and elected officials. Community pressure pushed MnDOT to present some of these more progressive options. As a community, we need to use these renderings as a starting point. Then we should consider what exactly we want, and coalesce around a preferred option. This will require local leadership. What ever we do, we should avoid the status quo or an expanded freeway. Changing or covering the freeways will be critical for getting our downtown and some of our neighborhoods back from the dead.
Our city is hurting right now. A lot of infrastructure is falling apart from decades of deferred maintenance and because we overbuilt road and street infrastructure for cars. People have stopped commuting into our downtown so many office buildings are partially or totally empty. Some of these buildings can be converted to residential housing but many cannot. Meanwhile downtown needs to be made into a more pleasant place to live that’s connected to its adjacent neighborhoods. Freeway trenches currently cut it off from the rest of our city and too much land is still devoted to surface or multi-story parking. We also have to rethink our transit systems, which were geared towards getting people into and out of downtowns and are sometimes barriers to connectivity rather than facilitators of it. Successfully handling the challenge of “rethinking I-94” could go a long way towards solving some of these problems.