Rendering of a Near North neighborhood in Minneapolis reconnected after freeway removal.

Reconnecting Communities Grants to Study Minnesota Highway Removal

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Reconnecting Communities Grants will bring $7 million in federal dollars to Minnesota, propelling highway removal campaigns in Minneapolis and Duluth. This federal involvement is a critical investment in repairing the harms that highways have caused in Minnesotan communities, our urban spaces, and our local economies and tax base. It’s also a huge victory for Minnesota’s highway fighters who want to re-evaluate highways through a reparative process.

The Reconnecting Communities Grant program is a federal effort to fund the study and implementation of projects aimed at reconnecting communities severed by highways. The program aims to improve access to daily needs such as jobs, education, healthcare, food and recreation in communities divided by highways, centering marginalized communities. 

A business section on 6th Avenue  North before the construction of Olson Memorial, 1934.
A business section on 6th Avenue North before the construction of Olson Memorial Highway, 1934. Image: Hennepin County Library

Many Black communities in the Twin Cities and around the country were divided by highway construction funded by earlier federal programs. In Minneapolis, the Near North neighborhood was divided by Minnesota’s first highway, Olson Memorial (Minnesota Highway 55), destroying a Black and Jewish neighborhood known for its local restaurants and businesses, music scene and the community’s role in the local Civil Rights movement.

The Reconnecting Communities Program aims to direct federal support to groups that are seeking to take the first steps toward repairing these historic harms. The program is funded by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and includes three types of grants for community planning, capital construction and regional partnerships.

Minnesota’s Reconnecting Communities Grants

Three projects in Minnesota were funded by the program this year, joining 129 other initiatives nationwide that received a combined $3.3 billion. Minnesotan communities are receiving a combined $7 million in federal dollars to support highway removal work, combined with local matches of about $1.7 million. These grants all fall under the community planning category. 

Our Streets Minneapolis’ application to fund the Bring Back 6th Campaign to remove Minneapolis’ Olson Memorial Highway was funded with $1.6 million. The funding will support a comprehensive feasibility study of removing Olson Memorial Highway with the goal of restoring and revitalizing the neighborhood. This would include designing a reconnected, multimodal street grid, assessing land use, and developing policies and scenarios to ensure new housing and commercial development leads to equitable benefits and anti-displacement for existing residents. This will also include significant community-centered engagement and continuing to build relationships in Near North Minneapolis.

“This is a first step,” says José Antonio Zayas Cabán, executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis and a board member of “Our goal is to build momentum and help other communities dismantle urban highways in the Twin Cities and across the state.”

Rendering of a reconnected Duluth along I-35.
Rendering of a reconnected Duluth along I-35. Image: Duluth Waterfront Collective

In Duluth, I-35 divides the core of the city, disrupting connectivity and accessibility in the area. The City of Duluth, in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council, will develop a comprehensive and community-led vision for transportation and other public right-of-way improvements along the Interstate 35 corridor in West Duluth and downtown Duluth.

The Highway 61 Revisited project from the Duluth Waterfront Collective has been fighting to rethink and remove the highway. Existing studies have highlighted the huge potential for highway removal to benefit the local economy and quality of life for residents. Their advocacy paved the way for this success, and funding for the Reconnecting Communities grant program represents a material and symbolic step forward.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation received a $3.6 million grant to study Olson Memorial Highway in suburban areas. This study aims to improve Highway 55 in Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Plymouth and Medina by partnering with local communities and making the road more accessible for multimodal forms of transportation. Goals include enhancing conditions and connectivity along the corridor, prioritizing safety, mobility and community needs, and alignment with future land use plans.

MnDOT follows Our Streets Minneapolis and the City of Minneapolis in taking steps to remove the highway. However, only some of MnDOT’s recently released project options for the corridor would truly restore communities. Given these plans, it’s unclear how their project will improve conditions and connectivity along the corridor. 

Other National Initiatives Fall Short

Minnesota communities will use this funding to comprehensively study highway removal projects that would completely reconnect communities. Other grants awarded around the country, however, fund efforts that fall short of actually restoring communities by removing the highways that have divided them for over half a century. These partial mitigation proposals also do not challenge our car-oriented cities or create climate and community health benefits.

An effort in Austin, Texas would put highway caps or stitches — two mitigation techniques — over an existing freeway without removing it. The project was funded for $105 million but would cover only four blocks of the highway that bisects Austin’s downtown, leaving much of the area out of the benefits. 

Conceptual drawing of highway cap along I-5 in Portland, Oregon. Office buildings, green space, and reconnected side streets are built over the highway.
Conceptual drawing of highway cap along I-5 in Portland, Oregon. Image: Oregon DOT

This is also true in Portland, Oregon, where an effort to cap a small stretch of freeway received $450 million to partially fund the $1.7 billion project. This mitigation measure comes as the highway below the land bridge will be expanded, worsening community impacts and cementing the freeways for another century.

These proposals concentrate benefits in much smaller areas, failing to fully restore and reconnect communities, creating expensive infrastructures for cities to maintain — and failing to rise to this historic moment.

Historic Opportunity to Ditch Highways

For the first time since the interstate highway system was conceived, we have the opportunity to re-imagine our cities without urban highways. The proposals also fail to address the climate change and community health impacts that highways and car-driven transportation have on communities in sprawling U.S. cities.  

Additionally, they fail to improve transportation access or choices for those who don’t own private vehicles, particularly important in the Twin Cities where many residents along freeway corridors like Olson Memorial Highway and I-94 don’t own cars

While this new funding in Minnesota represents a huge step forward, more work needs to be done to ensure our state leads the nation in rethinking the harmful transportation systems of the past. As co-founder Bill Lindeke wrote in a MinnPost piece on Olson Memorial Highway, “Despite talk of freeway removal in the U.S., the actual disappearance of concrete and asphalt has been almost comically scarce.”

We have the opportunity to join the projects that make it out of the planning phase if policymakers and Minnesotans are willing to demand something better for our communities. 

These efforts, now backed by federal funding, are gaining momentum. This funding signals to Minnesotans and the country that a generational investment in removing highways is possible. Now we have to follow through.  

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.