Neighbors Give Thumbs Down to I-94 Expansion

Seventy people gathered on October 26 at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in the Midway in St. Paul to talk about the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) Rethinking I-94 project and the agency’s proposed design options. The meeting was organized by the Transportation Committee of Union Park District Council and took place just two blocks north of the highway near Snelling Avenue.  

Some of the attendees at the October 26, 2023 meeting. Photo courtesy Kirsten Fryer.

The meeting was planned to provide an opportunity for people to see and discuss the nine “big picture” design options proposed by MnDOT and to motivate people to take MnDOT’s preference survey (which has since closed). For many participants, the meeting was their first introduction to the proposed 7.5-mile highway reconstruction project. Many hadn’t known that MnDOT had already released the design options or that the deadline for completing the online survey was less than a week away.  

Door-to-door outreach and lawn signs drew many of the participants to this community meeting. The target audience was residents who live in close proximity to Interstate 94 in the Union Park district, which runs about three miles from the border with Minneapolis on the west to Lexington Parkway on the east. The majority of attendees came from within the “Rethinking I-94″ project area — within a quarter-mile of the highway — and many of their yards or front doors face the highway or a tall sound wall.  

Map showing approximate home locations shared by meeting participants. The majority of those who shared their approximate locations live within the “Rethinking I-94” project area — within 1/4 mile of the highway.

The meeting started with dinner provided by the church, from Habanero Tacos‘ new location on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, provided by the church through a grant from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to support opportunities for connection and deeper relationships among neighbors.

Transportation Committee members debuted a PowerPoint presentation that recapped the history of highway construction in the Union Park neighborhood. Since construction occurred in the 1960s, only a few people in the room remembered when the neighborhood had a “downtown at Prior and old St. Anthony Avenue,” when 14 neighborhood streets were still connected north to south and before 400 structures (both homes and businesses) were demolished to make room for the highway.

People were surprised to learn that daily traffic volumes on I-94 have changed little in almost 20 years. Few knew that the highway is safer than many other major corridors in St. Paul — such as Rice Street, University Avenue and Maryland Avenue — where fatality and injury crash rates are much higher. They were not surprised about the number of high crash locations on major roads that connect to the highway and on its frontage roads, Concordia Avenue and St. Anthony Avenue.

Heat map of Fatal and Serious Injury crashes in St. Paul, 2018-2022. Source: St. Paul Transportation Safety Action Plan. Appendix A. Page 11. June 2023.

Participants also learned a little about the serious health risks — asthma, heart and respiratory disease — from the noise and air pollution generated by traffic on the highway.  

Presenters summarized the actions that community organizations have taken over the past three years to try to influence the I-94 project and the resolutions adopted by the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul that outline city priorities for the future of the corridor. In October 2021, 27 organizations sent MnDOT a 50-page letter requesting major changes to the draft “Purpose and Need” documents for the I-94 project.

27 organizations signed onto a 2021 letter to MnDOT, including the organizations representing the neighborhoods of Union Park, Lexington-Hamline, Macalester Groveland, St. Anthony Park, Hamline Midway, Seward, Cedar Riverside, Elliot Park and Prospect Park.

Discussing the Highway Options

The final section of the presentation by Union Park Transportation Committee members was an overview of nine of MnDOT’s proposed highway options (the 10th being “no build”). Participants were shown images of the current highway or other existing roads or highways that fit the description of each MnDOT option, graphics from MnDOT and design drawings created by a Union Park volunteer approximating the actual scale of the highway just East of Snelling Avenue, near Allianz Field. 

Example of information shared at the meeting about each set of options.

Participants were seated with their neighbors at round tables. Following the presentations, they began to talk about the MnDOT options. Those include:

  • No build or minor changes.
  • Conversion to a boulevard or smaller roadway with and without new transit.
  • Two options of an expanded highway with and without an E-ZPass lane.

According to MnDOT, all of the options that include a trench would allow for a land bridge in the Rondo neighborhood, as proposed by ReConnect Rondo, but specific street alignment and roadway design decisions are not being made at this point in the process.

Word cloud based on meeting participants’ most common responses to the question “What do you love about where you live?”

The table conversations revolved around personal stories about the neighborhood and reactions to the MnDOT design options. Discussion also covered other ideas people hoped MnDOT would consider, such as routing pedestrian and bike infrastructure outside of the highway’s “pollution zone,” land bridges at additional locations, bicycle connections to the Midtown Greenway, traffic calming, incentives for public transit and additional pedestrian bridges and other north/south neighborhood connections. Participants also offered ideas for alternative uses for the current highway trench: ranging from an “S-Bahn” between the downtowns to a buried subway or other transit to a bicycle highway.

Following the presentations and discussions, participants at each table identified the options they support and oppose.

Graph of the results of an informal highway option preference survey. Each participant received 5 red and 5 green star stickers, which they could distribute onto the highway options, which had been divided into 5 groups.

Nearly Unanimous Dislike of Added Lanes

The current highway is six to eight lanes wide, with three or four lanes in each direction depending on location. Meeting participants were in nearly unanimous agreement that they didn’t want an expanded highway.

MnDOT has proposed design options Expanded Freeway A and B where one additional lane — general purpose or E-ZPass, with or without wider shoulders for buses — would be added in each direction. MnDOT’s Reconfigure Freeway A design option proposes making the entire freeway length eight total lanes, including an E-ZPass lane in each direction, which would involve adding lanes in some sections where the highway is currently three lanes. 

Graphics showing Expanded Freeway A and B
Graphics showing Reconfigure Freeway A

People stated opposition to these three options even if the new lanes were E-ZPass lanes reserved at certain times of day for carpools, buses and solo drivers who would pay for a faster trip. Participants were concerned that these three options would increase levels of noise and air pollution, increase traffic on major connecting streets, ignore climate concerns and possibly result in more homes or businesses being demolished.

Similarly, few people were supportive of MnDOT’s status quo options titled General Maintenance A and B (see images above). In those, the highway is either not rebuilt or rebuilt with only changes necessary to meet today’s design standards. Room to run buses on the roadway shoulders could also be included. Lack of support for these options was centered around the lack of reduction in noise and air pollution, and safety concerns for people driving, walking and bicycling on frontage roads and bridges/corridors that cross the highway.  

Interest in Reducing Lanes and Surface Level Options

Four proposals — Reduced Freeway A, Local/Regional Roadway A, At-Grade A and At-Grade B — drew the most support, although opinions were still mixed. Two options involve keeping a highway trench but reducing the number of highway lanes. The other two would convert the trench to a surface street with fewer than the 6-8 lanes that I-94 has today. 

Design option Reduced Freeway A would slightly downsize the highway in some sections (making it six lanes — three in each direction — along the entire project length) and keep it in a trench, perhaps with more vertical walls than the current sloped sides. That option might free up some land for development or green space. It also proposes improved local roads and accommodations for biking, walking, and local street access at grade level. 

Local-Regional Roadway A would retain the trench and similarly convert the highway to two general-purpose lanes, plus a bus-only shoulder lane, in each direction. It also reduces the number of interchanges and access points, and shifts some local traffic to redesigned frontage roads. This might look something like the Vine Street Expressway in Philadelphia.

The other two options with significant support were those that involve filling the highway trench and building surface roads. Although this seems like a big change, these highway-to-boulevard options are actually similar to what was in place before the highway. MnDOT options At-Grade A and At-Grade B would both convert the highway to a street-level boulevard with two lanes in each direction for general traffic and a dedicated lane for buses. The difference between options A and B is the location of the dedicated Bus Rapid Transit lanes. A conversion would most likely free up more land for the development of parks or green space than any other option. These options are most similar to what has been proposed as the Twin Cities Boulevard.

What Comes Next

Despite interest in options that would move traffic from the current trench to surface streets, many participants were concerned about the noise and emissions from a street-level roadway, as well as the possible effects on safety and quality of life for those who live along the current frontage roads. Those who supported this option still wanted more information about the potential effects on traffic speed and safety, and on the concept of “traffic evaporation.”

Participants overall wanted details of how all of the options would affect the neighborhood and how construction and maintenance costs would differ among the options. There were questions about how “realistic” some options were, but MnDOT considers all of the proposed highway alternatives to be feasible at this point.

Aerial images of Union Park: St. Anthony Avenue at Prior and Fairview Avenues in 1940 compared with 1985. The neighborhood has changed a lot over the past 60 years; Rethinking I-94 now will shape the neighborhood for the next 60 years.

MnDOT’s preference survey is now closed. Next, the agency’s consultants and staff will review the feedback. Ultimately the agency will reduce the number of proposed design options for continued study within the “scoping process” of Environmental Review.

Sometime in 2024, MnDOT plans to pick a preferred alternative for the development of a federally required Environmental Impact Statement. Development of that document will take three to four years. Comments and questions about the process or the proposed options can still be submitted to MnDOT here.

Overall, the meeting was deemed a great success. Neighbors genuinely appreciated the opportunity to gather together to eat, learn, and discuss something important and relevant to their lives. Union Park’s Transportation Committee is available to show its presentation and discuss the options with any organized group. Click here to view the slides.

Editor’s note: Two corrections have been made to this article. They reflect that 1) MnDOT is not sure it could accommodate a land bridge in an at-grade freeway option; and 2) a 10th option for the freeway, which the event did not address, is “no build.”