Rethinking I-94: Let’s Start With a Subway

Editor’s noteThis is part one of a series covering at-grade options for MnDOT’s Rethinking I-94 project. Part two may be found here, considering designs for the interstate beyond MnDOT’s study corridor.

The Rethinking I-94 project is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Minneapolis and St. Paul to right the wrongs of the past while building a better future. The interstate has destroyed neighborhoods and torn apart communities, and it continues to divide and hurt those living amid its exhaust, noise and fumes. Many ideas have been presented for what we should do with the interstate, the most well-known of which is Our Streets’ Twin Cities Boulevard proposal. Currently, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is considering two at-grade road conversions, a local/regional roadway concept, a reduced freeway, a reconfigured freeway and two versions of an expanded freeway.

The boulevard proposal is best reflected in the at-grade options that MnDOT has released. While they are not as well thought out as the Boulevard proposal is, with enough pressure from the community, the at-grade alternatives could be molded to look very similar to the Twin Cities Boulevard. 

MnDOT’s At-Grade B alternative.

Neighbors have voiced their opposition to freeway expansion, and MnDOT currently is still evaluating which project should be taken up. This will last until sometime in 2025 when MnDOT will release its initial draft of the project that the department would like to implement. Given that debate is still ongoing, I would like to present my own thoughts on what should be done with the freeway. 

Rail in the I-94 Trench

Expanding the freeway is the worst possible option and needs to be removed from consideration. Much has been said about the harms that highways contribute to a city, and expanding I-94 will only increase the damage being done. After extensive research, Our Streets has shown that the best option is an at-grade conversion, allowing for bus rapid transit down the middle, which frees up a significant amount of land to be repurposed toward housing, parks, businesses and other community amenities. 

I propose that we combine the Our Streets boulevard proposal with an idea similar to what the I-94 Rail Coalition has proposed and place trains in the trench before filling it in and creating the boulevard. The Our Streets organization supports this, as do residents engaged in the process. MnDOT issued a Rethinking I-94 survey on the presented projects, with an optional write-in response. The number one write-in suggestion was rail, with a total of 359 responders out of roughly 3,500.

For the write-in response, 359 responders wanted rail, subway or train considered. 353 expressed interest in removal, boulevard or at-grade alternatives, and 333 for bridge, cap or cover.

The majority of I-94 is in a trench, meaning that excavating the freeway gives us the perfect opportunity to install a below-ground passenger rail line to connect both downtowns before proceeding to build a boulevard above. This is a unique subway building opportunity; the majority of the route can be built unobstructed and without having to worry about other utilities in the way. 

Two separate lines should be built in the tunnel: a heavy rail that goes only between Target Field station in Minneapolis and Union Depot in St. Paul, and a light rail that connects to both downtowns with a station or two along the way at points such as Snelling Avenue that would serve as an express line between the two downtowns. Two separate lines allow for heavy rail and light rail to run through the tunnel simultaneously without interfering and slowing each other down. 

Commuter Rail in the Trench

The commuter rail lines — the heavy rail — will connect between Target Field and Union Depot and provide for several connections with other rail lines. Amtrak service could connect to both downtowns, rather than only to Union Depot in St. Paul. And a new heavy-rail line would allow routes such as Northstar and the proposed Dan Patch line, which would travel from Minneapolis to Northfield, to connect to both of the Twin Cities. This would boost the usability, feasibility and ridership of said routes and provide them with dedicated passenger heavy rail, which avoids any potential conflicts with cargo rail, something that has plagued commuter rails such as Amtrak in the past.

The possibilities for the I-94 trench have to be considered within the context of a larger network. Including and expanding on heavy passenger rail will allow the Twin Cities to become a regional rail hub, allowing for faster, cleaner and cheaper transportation among many regional cities. (For more on the advantages and potential of regional rail, read Jesse Cook’s coverage of the topic in

Map of the rail alignment proposed by the I-94 Rail Coalition. The route would connect both of the Twin Cities' downtowns, with an additional stop in Midway, and the possibility for infill stations at other points along the route.

Light Rail in the Trench

As for the light rail line, this allows for a much faster connection between both downtowns. The Green Line serves a similar corridor for local traffic; however, to get from end to end takes roughly 45 minutes. A similar trip in a car takes one-third that time, often causing people to opt for driving over transit. Having a light-rail line run through the two downtowns, and perhaps making a stop or two at key intersections such as Snelling Avenue, would shorten the train trip to only about 20 minutes, making it nearly as fast as using a car — faster if you include the time it takes to park. The new light rail would serve as an express line, complementing the local-destination Green Line.

Here is where the I-94 portion of the line should go: 

Map of proposed I-94 light rail alignment (the Pink Line), which runs in the interstate corridor and along existing rail in both Downtowns, with a stop in Midway on Snelling.

Since I map the new light-rail line in pink, I will call it the Pink Line. It would traverse all five Downtown Minneapolis stations before splitting off from the Green and Blue Lines to become an express line. From there it will travel in the newly made tunnel as a subway, making a stop at Snelling. This serves as a transfer point to the A Line BRT, as well as providing more transit options for those who attend games at Allianz Field. Bill Lindeke, a co-founder of and the Cityscape columnist at MinnPost, recently wrote about the parking issues around the soccer stadium, and this line could help alleviate people’s perceived need to drive to the stadium. Having people ride light rail to the stadium and then mingle around the neighborhood also might kickstart the infill development that stadium boosters promised years ago. 

The Pink Line would then continue east to reconnect with the Green Line in St. Paul by rising out of the subway before heading to the 10th Street station, where it would continue to Central Station. From there, it could head to Union Depot, or it could diverge to form a new route. 

Advantages of an Express Line

Why prioritize more light rail when Metro Transit ridership has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels and fewer people are working five days a week in the office?

The advantages include: increased possible transit connections, the potential to inspire and serve increased activity in both downtowns, increased frequency and capacity between Downtowns and a mode of transportation that people are more likely to use.

The Pink Line would allow for a multitude of easy transit connections. Currently, approximately 21 transit routes pass through downtown Minneapolis with a frequency of 20 minutes or less. Roughly 14 with headways of 20 minutes or less pass through downtown St. Paul. Of these, only four routes pass through both downtowns: the 3, 61, Green Line and the 94 Express. Routes 3 and 61 take roughly an hour to get between both downtowns; the Green Line, again, takes roughly 45 minutes; and the 94 express takes about 30 minutes. That compares with an estimated 20 minutes for the new Pink Line.

Downtown areas have the most transit lines running through them of all the neighborhoods in the city, and having a fast connector between them allows people to more readily use the transit options available in both downtowns. 

Several new lines have been built (C and D Lines) or are currently being built (Gold Line, B Line, Green Line Extension), as well as others in planning (Riverview Corridor, Purple Line, Blue Line Extension). This express line will make many of these lines in Minneapolis more accessible to someone in St. Paul and vice versa. 

For example, having a 15-minute connection between the two downtowns would allow someone to take the Purple Line and hop on the new intercity Pink Line, before switching to the C Line to go to North Minneapolis. This would only take about 30 minutes total depending on how far they ride the Purple and C lines. The present system which would take 45 minutes on the Green Line, not accounting for the time spent on other transit lines.  

A train would serve this route far better than the 94 Express, which takes about 30 minutes end to end, depending on traffic. The underground Pink Line would have a right of way for its entire length, meaning it would not have to deal with traffic, greatly increasing its speeds. Additionally, trains have a significant amount more capacity, enabling more people to take the trip. 

Graph displaying ridership return on investment (ROI) for Metro Transit, measured as passengers per in-service hour by transit mode. Light rail consistently has the highest ROI, distantly followed by the Northstar and BRT.

Trains also have a much greater presence and better advertising, making people more likely to ride them. I personally was not aware of the 94 bus route until writing this article, and the bus is set up as a local bus making its presence much more subtle. A train line, on the other hand, is a more permanent and visible form of infrastructure, working to induce more demand. People who would otherwise forego traversing the route via bus will be more likely to make that same trip by train.

The 94 express bus also has peak frequencies of about 20 minutes, and for the majority of the day it is at 30 minutes. This forces people to plan their trips; they can’t show up to the station and expect the next bus to come quickly. The light rail, on the other hand, has 15-minute headways even at its slowest point, and Metro Transit is working to decrease them with more operators. The Pink Line would likely run at 10- or 12-minute headways with fewer stops, allowing people in either downtown to show up, board the line in a reasonable amount of time and not have to plan their trip. That makes them more likely to become riders. 

Additionally, despite current safety concerns on the Blue Line and Green Line, studies show that people are more willing to take a train than a bus. A study by the University of North Carolina found that people of middle and high incomes are far more likely to take the train than the bus. According to an article reporting the findings of the study, “Bus riders are more likely to be low-income (34%) and minority (68%) than light rail riders (15% and 49%, respectively), according to Charlotte Area Transit System statistics from a 2017 study.” While this was done in Charlotte, I still believe it puts numbers behind the general sentiment, though that sentiment may differ from system to system. 

People also have more trust that a train won’t get rerouted as fast as a bus will. Train infrastructure is more expensive to move, and thus it rarely does. This helps people to trust that a train line is going to be a viable option for a long time, and they are then more likely to incorporate it as their mode of transportation. 

Lastly, we have only one opportunity to build rail here if the boulevard plan is approved. The average cost per mile of the Blue Line extension in Minneapolis, an above-ground light rail, is estimated to cost roughly $200 million per mile; however, the cost per mile of recent subway projects, such as the Los Angeles Purple Line and the San Francisco Central Subway Project, clock in at $800 million and $900 million per mile respectively. If we don’t build the subway into the trench before filling it in with a boulevard, we are likely never going to get any rail there. 

Rethinking I-94 will impact the cities for decades to come. With a project of this magnitude and importance, we have to be thinking of how we want our cities to look and function in the long term. Our downtowns are changing, but they are coming back, and with sports stadiums, concerts, bars and restaurants, and other entertainment opportunities, they are still the center of our cities. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have long-term plans for their downtowns, and a Pink Line rapid-transit connection between the two would benefit the downtowns as well as the Twin Cities overall. 

Continuing the Pink Line

While my main proposal for the Pink Line is to be an express line between the downtowns, it could be built to serve more areas as well. Presuming the express line gets approved, we should use the momentum and build a new line out into the areas surrounding the downtowns. This would mean it would function as a normal light-rail line out in Minneapolis, and convert into an express line downtown, until it converts back into a normal light rail in downtown St. Paul.

Below I list the routes that I think would be sensible outside of downtown, though they could certainly be changed. 

While the I-94 portion should all be built underground due to the ease of construction, the extensions I am going to propose would most likely not be built underground. The express portion is rare in that it would be built already in a trench, but at both of the ends it would likely make more sense economically to run the lines at or above grade.  

On the Minneapolis end:

I believe the most sensible continuation of the route would be along Olson Memorial Highway / Highway 55. The corridor was already determined to be highly viable for BRT in 2015 study, demonstrating that light rail is not a difficult leap. Additionally, the Minneapolis portion of the route was originally planned to be part of the Blue Line Extension, before it was forced to be rerouted.

The Pink Line would continue west of Downtown Minneapolis along Highway 55 into Plymouth.

There are several advantages to running along this route. The highway is already being considered for a conversion back to a regular street, and having a light-rail line running through it greatly enhances transit access and mobility. Even if Olson Memorial Highway does not get converted, the right of way is already owned, making the route easier to build. The line could be built in the middle of the highway, which is not optimal but has been done with metro systems in several other cities. It also expands the light rail network into more suburbs, making it easier to live car-free in Plymouth and Golden Valley. 

On the St Paul end: 

The Pink Line would continue south of Downtown St. Paul on Robert Street.

I mentioned earlier that I do not believe the line should continue to Union Depot, and that is because it should turn at Robert Street to continue out to West St. Paul. Similar to Highway 55, this route is recommended for BRT, showing the need for increased frequency and capacity. This route would offer a redevelopment opportunity across the river from Downtown St. Paul as it would now be better connected to fast transit. It would also connect both St. Paul’s West Side and West St. Paul to the light rail network, offering both cities better transit.  

Moving Downtown Minneapolis Stations Underground

The Pink Line, as I have proposed it, will connect with both the Blue and Green Lines in the Downtown Minneapolis stations. Given that this will be a huge investment and a change for the better in the Twin Cities, this should also be used as an opportunity to build three underground stations in Downtown Minneapolis starting with the U.S. Bank Stadium station, the Government Plaza Stations, and combining the Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue stations into one due to their proximity to each other. 

The current setup of the light rail in Downtown Minneapolis has issues ranging from stopping at red lights for traffic, which can cause backups when multiple lines are running to the stations, to stopping too frequently due to the proximity of the stations. Using the I-94 rail project as an opportunity to build underground stations will greatly speed up both the Green and Blue Lines as they will no longer have to wait in traffic with cars, giving the stations the capacity necessary to handle a third line running through them. This also allows the express line to stay underground from Downtown Minneapolis until it finally comes up to connect with the 10th Street station in St. Paul. Underground stations can more easily accommodate turnstiles, increasing the safety of the stations and decreasing fare evasion. Additionally, we live in Minnesota, and underground stations are much easier to keep warm than open-air stations, further increasing the comfort of those using transit. 

A potential underground light rail station, showing the design of the station and its relationship to surrounding rock and soil types.
Potential design for an underground LRT station.

While this would be expensive, using the momentum of an I-94 rebuild is the perfect time to undertake it. Moving the stations underground would increase the efficiency of the trains, while also freeing up space on the road. This newly freed space could be converted into bike lanes, or other usable pedestrian-focused infrastructure. 

We also would not be going into this in the dark; there have been studies done on the potential of underground stations in Minneapolis, including one from the University of Minnesota, and we already have extensive geological and geographical knowledge of what is below Downtown Minneapolis. 

Rethinking I-94 is an opportunity to reimagine infrastructure and change the way our cities operate and how we get around within them. We can build infrastructure that gets people out of their cars and gives them a fast and convenient way around while also connecting more communities to the network that we already have.

I truly hope that MnDOT will listen to what the community wants, whether that is my idea or someone else’s, and respond in a way that builds better infrastructure with an eye to the future as opposed to the past. 

About Seth Bose

Pronouns: he/him

I am a Loring Park resident and a student at Minneapolis College studying both Economics and Mathematics. I am an advocate for more transit and denser, more sustainable, and all around better cities.