Rethinking I-94: Two Meetings, Two Steps Forward

The Rethinking I-94 process advanced last month with two public meetings updating us on the project. These meetings were an important step forward for decision makers and advocates in shaping project priorities and outcomes. Through my work at Our Streets Minneapolis and as a student at Macalester College in St. Paul who will inherit the decisions from this process, I saw these meetings as an opportunity to push policymakers to listen to communities along the corridor and envision a better shared future in the Twin Cities.

The first meeting was Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) Policy Advisory Committee (PAC), which met on February 14 to update officials and the public on the status of Interstate 94. The second, a meeting of the House Transportation Finance and Policy committee, was a legislative hearing for state policymakers to get up to speed on the project.

State and local policy makers weighed in on MnDOT’s engagement efforts and project scoping (their vetting of alternatives to understand which proposal best meets the “purpose and need” documents). At the legislative hearing, Our Streets Minneapolis presented the findings of an independent study on the Twin Cities Boulevard, a grassroots effort to replace I-94 with a multi-modal boulevard and restore communities. Reconnect Rondo presented its vision of a land bridge as well, to help restore a vibrant neighborhood that once housed 85 percent of St. Paul’s African American population. 

PAC Meeting: Takeaways and Updates

The February 14 PAC meeting focused on MnDOT’s engagement efforts and project progress since the last PAC meeting in July. MnDOT presented a revised project timeline to allow more time to engage with communities, businesses and other stakeholders. This will stretch the scoping period for the project into 2025, at which point the project alternatives will be narrowed down. Environmental review processes will stretch to the end of the decade, with construction likely beginning in 2030 or later.

Key takeaways:

  1. MnDOT’s engagement process on Rethinking I-94 failed to include the perspectives of the variety of diverse communities along the corridor. College educated white men ages 25 to 34 gave the most responses on the survey.
  2. As momentum builds for a highway-to-boulevard conversion, Minneapolis City Councilmember Robin Wonsley (Ward 2) and other PAC members called for better communication about the at-grade proposal to expand public awareness of an option beyond our current familiarity with freeways.

I wrote a more comprehensive summary of this meeting for MinnPost, which can be found here

Transportation Finance and Policy committee

The Minnesota Transportation Finance and Policy committee met on Thursday, February 22, giving legislators the opportunity to engage with the project early in the 2024 legislative session. Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis) presided over the meeting, with Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), the Senate’s Transportation Committee chair and a longtime ally of Hornstein, also present.

Although the Minnesota Legislature will not directly influence the selection of project alternatives, it will appropriate funding for the project in coming years once a project alternative is selected by MnDOT.

Key takeaways

A New Comprehensive Twin Cities Boulevard Study: Our Streets Minneapolis debuted the results of a feasibility study created in collaboration with Toole Design, Visible City and Smart Mobility, a small transportation planning and modeling firm. The study answered questions about the land use, traffic and community development potential of the boulevard. 

Transportation Modeling: The traffic component of the study revealed that I-94 is not serving its intended purpose of long-distance, inter-city travel, instead serving more local trips within Minneapolis and St. Paul. Contrary to MnDOT’s assumptions, the average trip along the corridor is around 4 miles, with 25% of trips traveling 2 miles or less.

Average trip length of westbound, eastbound and midpoint entering trips along the Rethinking I-94 corridor

Additionally, roughly 120,000 people move across the corridor using a variety of travel modes, including biking, walking and transit. An interstate highway is an expensive, inefficient and harmful way to accommodate these types of trips. The highway also serves as a barrier for cross-corridor trips, creating a mental and physical barrier to connecting neighborhoods and communities. 

Corridor cross-section, with areas that lost cross-corridor connectivity during highway construction and now serve as a barrier for all modes, including biking, walking and transit.

Additionally, MnDOT’s model does not account for shifting transportation habits resulting from post-COVID commuting changes. The model produces misleading results that cannot accurately predict future speeds and travel times. This means we are making decisions based on incomplete information, a concern that planners and policymakers are raising elsewhere. 

Community Development: The community development component of the study found that repurposing highway right-of-way would have significant economic benefits by making room for new housing, businesses and parks as well as growing the local tax base. The current highway right of way along the corridor occupies 366 acres of land in Minneapolis and St. Paul, equivalent to 50 Allianz Fields’ worth of land no longer serving adjacent communities. The Twin Cities boulevard proposal would result in roughly 96 acres of land being returned to Minneapolis and St. Paul for community-centered development, with the remaining land being used to support multimodal transportation and parks along the boulevard itself. 

Summary of land-use comparisons used in the report’s analysis

Based on low, moderate and medium-density references from existing Twin Cities neighborhoods, we could add:

  • 510 to 1,840 much-needed housing units.
  • 230 to 1,845 permanent jobs.
  • Between $202 million and $295 million in land value.
  • Up to $5.2 million in annual local tax revenue.

If a higher-density alternative was pursued for this reclaimed highway land, benefits could include 2,200 to 2,450 jobs, $425.5 million to $470 million in market value, and 2,020 to 2,230 units of housing.

Summary of prospective boulevard conversion outcomes

This could generate economic benefits centered in communities, especially if a land trust or similar community development strategy was implemented. This could also significantly grow Minneapolis and St. Paul’s tax base, enabling future investments in our communities. 

Land capacity for new community development by neighborhood

These estimates are based on realistic cross sections of a potential highway-to-boulevard conversion along the corridor. The blue shaded areas (above) represent the amount of land that could be returned to communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul, totaling more than 100 acres of land that the highway currently occupies.

Our Streets will release more details about the study by mid-March. 

Reconnecting Communities Without Rebuilding the Highway

A final possibility that emerged from the meeting is the potential of a land bridge being incorporated into the design — if MnDOT selects an at-grade highway-to-boulevard option. In this case, a multimodal boulevard would run under a land bridge through the Rondo community, creating an outcome where both possibilities exist.

This would include the Rondo African American Cultural Enterprise District and see other communities reconnected and revitalized as well, emphasizing that Rondo can be reconnected without the highway being reconstructed.

Cross-section rendering of a boulevard conversion with a land bridge incorporated

Our Streets Minneapolis board member Nat Turner, a resident of the Rondo neighborhood whose family has lived there since 1933, reiterated the importance of this alternative. “I think if [we] had an opportunity to reimagine what the Twin Cities Boulevard would look like, to reimagine St. Paul without I-94, basically cutting a scar through the middle of the city, [residents of Rondo] would want to see it be a flourishing place. … They’d want it to be green, they would want to have parks, they would want to have businesses … money, jobs … and newer, better housing,” all possible without rebuilding the highway.

This would also benefit all communities along the corridor, the first step in addressing historic and ongoing harms for Minneapolis and St. Paul residents living along the highway. 

Next Steps

In the coming months, MnDOT will refine and evaluate project alternatives and develop draft scoping documents. Engagement is also set to continue, though not yet with defined steps to ensure more representative and equitable results. Significant procedural changes clearly are necessary to ensure equity and the success of the project. 

With the conversation to truly Re-think I-94 with a boulevard building momentum, MnDOT should establish a work group to conduct more detailed analysis of this project option. MnDOT announced a similar group to study land bridges, but the highway removal’s potential for community reconnection deserves equal attention. Additionally, flawed modeling and forgone traffic assumptions must be assessed to ensure that the project actually meets community needs. 

Stay tuned for more project updates later in 2024. 

About Joe Harrington

Joe is a student in Saint Paul, studying Geography and Environmental Studies. Joe writes on urban planning, environmental policy, and transportation in Minnesota and beyond. Joe also works at Our Streets Minneapolis as a GIS specialist, aiming to create an equitable and multi-modal future in the Twin Cities. Joe is a member of the board of directors at Streets.MN and in his free time loves exploring Twin Cities restaurants, cooking, and finding good places to swim.