Activists stand athwart highway expansion, yelling stop

By: - June 16, 2021 7:00 am

Jordan van der Hagen waits for a truck to exit an offramp connecting Interstate 35 in Duluth before crossing it. A near miss with a driver exiting the ramp inspired van der Hagen to advocate for replacing I-35 through downtown with a surface boulevard. Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

DULUTH — Jordan van der Hagen, a landscape designer, wants I-35 through downtown Duluth replaced with a boulevard. The freeway, he argues, is a massive tangle of concrete shuttling fewer cars than it was intended for, while inhibiting opportunities for downtown development and more human-centered — as opposed to autocentric — movement.

The idea was part of his undergraduate thesis at North Dakota State University. He was inspired by a near miss with a driver while walking on the Lake Avenue overpass. 

“I-35 through downtown Duluth doesn’t handle 50% of the traffic it was built for; it’s not being used by that many people,” van der Hagen said. It may sound fanciful, but other cities like Portland and Seattle have removed major waterfront highways, and other cities are considering it. 

For most of the automobile era, Minnesota has been singularly focused on building new roads and expanding existing ones to move freight and people, handling increased traffic and improving safety while supporting the state’s economy. 

But as the Minnesota Department of Transportation works on a 20-year plan to shape the future of getting around Minnesota, progressive activists are mobilizing against the traditional model of building and expanding freeways, echoing arguments made around the country, from Syracuse to Detroit. 

They say highways, which were frequently shunted through low-income and Black neighborhoods like Rondo in St. Paul, are bad for public health and the climate, expensive to maintain, and not always effective in getting people around, especially in high traffic urban areas.

As a result, after decades of freeway construction and widening, some states and metro regions are taking the opposite approach: Tearing them down and crafting solutions so people don’t always have to drive. 

Van der Hagen’s Duluth idea is laid out as “Highway 61 Revisited,” a cheeky reference to favorite son Bob Dylan, on the website of a group he’s helped organize called the Duluth Waterfront Collective.

The city, the regional planning organization and MnDOT appear to like the idea, at least as a concept. Mayor Emily Larson, whose parents fought the construction of I-35E through Saint Paul, said there’s a long way to go. Van der Hagen needs to work with state and local officials to gather resources and a plan. 

Opponents of freeways and road widening are likely to run into stiff resistance: Road and bridge construction retain significant support among both parties in both chambers of the Legislature, which isn’t likely to change anytime soon. It’s one of the few kinds of spending that Republicans like; their suburban and rural constituents rely on their cars and trucks for both work and play. Both parties also fiercely compete for the support of the construction trade unions that build roads.  

In the Twin Cities, anti-freeway advocates want MnDOT to build a cap over I-94 through St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. They’re also urging MnDOT not to widen any highways and instead invest in transit, biking and walking

Both the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul have passed resolutions agreeing with advocates. MnDOT has acknowledged the deep wounds it created when it built I-94 through neighborhoods. Less clear is how to fix I-94, which needs rebuilding in St. Paul, or how to pay to cover it. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, is negotiating with Senate Republicans for $6 million to begin engineering a cover for I-94 through Rondo.  

Advocates and the City of Minneapolis are also opposing widening I-94 in Minneapolis and converting Highway 252 in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park into a freeway. MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council want to widen these as well as I-494 in Richfield, Bloomington and Edina to reduce congestion and crashes and accommodate MnPASS lanes, which are for carpoolers or people who pay extra for the privilege to use. MnDOT is also widening Highway 169 in Elk River, Highway 14 between Owatonna and Dodge Center, and Highway 23 between New London and Richmond. 

The widening projects are funded by MnDOT’s Corridors of Commerce program, which bankrolls highway widening projects across the state, in an effort to help local economies. While currently out of money, legislators on both sides of the aisle in both chambers are pushing to invigorate the program with funds.

Highway widening opponents are concerned about what’s called induced demand. That’s when building wider roads merely encourages more people to drive more often, filling up the new lanes and thus not relieving congestion as promised.

“We now have decades of data showing … induced demand results in congestion remaining the same or worse,” said Ash Narayanan, executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis and chair of a MnDOT advisory group created in 2019 to recommend ways the agency can reduce transportation pollution. 

Even if highways get people from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time, they have drawbacks, widening opponents say. For example, they are only for those who can afford to own and are able to drive a motor vehicle. 

“No one should have to purchase a $30,000 vehicle to go anywhere,” said Narayanan. “We should also provide the opportunity to get to and from the same places on train, bike and walking.”

Highway building has a history of racial discrimination: I-35W and I-94 in the Twin Cities, as well as I-35 in Duluth, were built through redlined communities, where many poor and Black people lived because those were the only places where they could buy a home. 

Today, people who live near highways are more likely to be poor and have health problems. Minnesotans in the Twin Cities area who live in a zip code with a major freeway are more likely to be hospitalized for asthma. In Duluth’s Lincoln Park, where U.S. Highway 53, I-35, and I-535 converge, residents die an average of 20 years earlier compared to residents in other Duluth neighborhoods

Advocates are also worried that increasing roadway capacity comes at the expense of the planet. A report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found transportation to be one of the state’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. 

After a decades-long decline, fatalities from car crashes nationwide are on the rise in recent years. As of this April, 110 people have died on Minnesota roads compared to 84 fatalities in April last year. To date, 45 people have died in speed-related fatalities this year, compared to last year’s to-date total of 23. 

A Metro Transit bus is being driven on the shoulder of eastbound I-94 during a traffic jam caused by a multi-vehicle crash just east of Highway 280. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is weighing its options to rebuild I-94, construction of which cleaved the Rondo neighborhood in two. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

The state’s 12,000-mile network of roadways — one of the largest in the nation — is expensive to maintain.  

MnDOT anticipated in 2017 receiving $21 billion over the next 16 years, not nearly enough to fund the state’s $39 billion in capital needs over the same period, leaving a $18 billion shortfall to fix our roads and bridges, many of which still use 60-to-70-year-old pavement. 

If there were a time to reconsider transportation policy, this might be it: The pandemic seems to have transformed people’s transportation patterns, with many workers increasingly working from home at least a day or two per week, thus lessening the load of rush hour traffic. 

Anti-highway advocates say their arguments are breaking through: MnDOT’s Sustainable Transportation and Advisory Committee recommended the agency stop widening freeways to address congestion; reduce the amount of miles driven by 20% by 2050; and invest the savings in walking, biking and transit. MnDOT supports most of the recommendations, but continues to discuss the more controversial recommendations — such as highway widening — internally. 

Brian Gibson, executive director of the Saint Cloud Area Planning Organization, is seeking a middle path. “No one wants more [greenhouse gas emissions], but we have a whole set of competing forces at work here. People still need to get to work. It’s America, we still have freedom,” Gibson said. 

Gibson’s organization is expanding roadway capacity in the St. Cloud area, namely by building a ring road that drivers can use to bypass congested roads downtown. Envisioned in the 1980s, the only completed portions so far are two discontinuous stretches of 33rd Street South in St. Cloud, one mile north of I-94. St. Cloud is also studying a crossing over the Mississippi River as part of the vision. A third stretch through Benton County is awaiting funding for construction. 

But why not fund transit instead? “It’s difficult to say ‘Let’s provide service in far-flung areas at the edge of the urban area.’ There’s not a lot of ridership,” Gibson said. 

Self-driving vehicles may prove to be part of the solution. A University of Minnesota study published in 2015 found self-driving cars can alleviate traffic congestion because vehicles can drive closer together. It may also reduce car ownership, travel lanes and fatal crashes while allowing the elderly, mobility-impaired, and children to get around independently. 

While the technology is still developing, self-driving vehicles are already delivering pizzas in Houston and transporting passengers in taxis in suburban Phoenix. Later this year, MnDOT will launch an autonomous shuttle pilot in Rochester, and may fund a similar network in Grand Rapids

MnDOT wants Minnesotans to weigh in the transportation future by filling out a survey here.

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Henry Pan
Henry Pan

Henry Pan (pronouns: They/He/佢/他) is a Twin Cities-based journalist, cartographer and photographer passionate about human interests and all things transportation. They have a background in urban planning, a disdain for Minnesota Nice, and a penchant for solitude, transit and bicycle joyrides.

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