Commissioner Daubenberger, tear down that highway!
Residents of the I-94 corridor are less likely to have a car, but more likely to be economically marginalized and have health vulnerabilities, the authors write. Photo by Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer.
After nearly 60 years, I-94 in Minneapolis and Saint Paul is reaching the end of its useful life.
The roadway was completed in 1968, promoted as a major step for progress, paving the way for faster travel times in and between cities, while catalyzing the development of suburban areas.
In the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Highways Department — known as the Minnesota Department of Transportation today — and the city of Minneapolis sold the highway as a safer option for commuters that would improve health and be an amenity to the local communities where it would be built. The communities living in close proximity to highways were promised prosperity through higher land values, better transportation access and more stable livelihoods.
This is not what happened. Sixty years later, residents along these corridors are burdened by the negative effects of highways — while benefiting from them the least. The legacy of these decisions has long outlasted the policymakers who made them, but the burden of urban highways still falls on marginalized groups.
Today, the freeway is so old that it must be entirely rebuilt. Since 2016, MnDOT has been working on the “Rethinking I-94” project, weighing different options for the future of this urban corridor.
At this critical moment in defining the future of America’s aging infrastructure, many cities have taken steps to reconnect communities and heal highways’ historic and ongoing harms.
In Rochester, N.Y., the eastern segment of the city’s inner loop highway was removed thanks to a grant from the Obama administration in 2013. The reclaimed land has since reconnected the street grid and allowed for the development of critical new housing and other urban services. Cities including Syracuse, Detroit, Somerville, Mass., and New Haven, Conn., have also committed to highway removal projects to reconnect their cities.
Alternatively, we can keep on with the status quo — an unsightly, football-field wide gash through our communities, with rumbling cars and trucks at all hours spewing harmful emissions and noise.
Any discussion of these plans should pay particular consideration to the populations living along the corridor.
Thanks to the work of Mapping Prejudice Project, we know how the modern era of real estate led to the creation of the racially restrictive housing covenants that — in conjunction with segregationist practices and intimidation tactics — forced Black communities, immigrants, and many poor and working class people to live in the same areas that were selected for destruction to facilitate highway development.
Today, residents of these areas are less likely to have a car, but more likely to be economically marginalized and have health vulnerabilities. These are the people that must deal with the air pollution, noise pollution and disruption of the urban fabric that the freeway creates. As Minnesotans contemplate potential paths forward for the I-94 corridor, these disparities should be key considerations in our decision-making process.
One of the biggest selling points of the Twin Cities’ urban highway system was that residents living near the highway would benefit from efficient transportation infrastructure, connecting them with jobs, goods and services. However, data from the American Community Survey shows that residents along the Rethinking I-94 corridor have far lower access to cars than their counterparts living farther from the freeway. Even though the harms of the freeway primarily affect the people living near them, the benefits accrue to more affluent commuters (recent, more formalized research on Los Angeles found the same pattern).
As was true when they were first built, our urban highways also divide and disrupt many communities where BIPOC residents live. According to census data, many areas with large populations of color have freeways — both I-94 and other freeways — going through them.
In a map of white residents, we see that some whiter areas are also split by freeways and must deal with their consequences. Many more of the Twin Cities’ whiter areas, however, are clustered in Southwest Minneapolis, along the Mississippi River, and in the Bend in St. Paul, separate from major highways.
Economic promises of prosperity driven by highway construction have also fallen short. Instead, many of the Twin Cities’ most economically vulnerable households today live along I-94. Residents along the corridor have lower median incomes and are more likely to live below the poverty line.
Additionally, the freeway exposes health disparities. Using data from the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we see that the age-adjusted asthma hospitalization rate is higher along the Rethinking I-94 Corridor. When compared to Minnesota as a whole, asthma hospitalization along I-94 is three times higher. This isn’t to say that the freeway is the sole cause of higher asthma rates (although it may be a contributor) — but that those who face the most health risk from air pollution are the ones who must live with a freeway nearby.
More generally, people who live along the freeway have shorter lifespans. According to CDC data on life expectancy at birth, many census tracts along the corridor have life expectancies between about 65 and 75, while tracts in Southwest Minneapolis and other largely white Twin Cities suburbs have life expectancies between 84 and 92 years old.
As we contemplate the future of the I-94 corridor, we face a choice:
We can work to create solidarity and stitch the corridor back together.
Or, we can keep our urban highway, rebuild it or expand it, and prioritize the movement of cars.
We can undo the costs that freeways unequally impose on our residents.
Or, we can double down on these harms for another generation.
We should not overlook the freeway’s ongoing harms to these communities in a drive to expand harmful, car-centric infrastructure. Instead, we should meaningfully engage each neighborhood and help them envision repaired and restored community districts.
We must look to solutions that thoroughly address the unsustainable and inequitable health impacts of freeways.
Otherwise, some of our most vulnerable residents will face the harm of urban freeways for decades more to come.
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