When it comes to I-94, let’s consider people, not cars
Photo by Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer.
I-94 between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, originally built in the 1960s, is reaching the end of its useful life as the highway infrastructure ages. The Minnesota Department of Transportation launched a “Rethinking I-94” project in 2016, including engagement from government agencies and the general public. The project included an environmental impact study and the creation of so-called purpose and need documents that will be used to shape project priorities and outcomes.
MnDOT recently shared 10 potential options for the Rethinking I-94 project. They also shared the results of a transit study incorporated into the project design process. The proposals range widely from highway expansion; a “no build” option that would perform basic maintenance but leave the highway intact; and two at-grade boulevard options that would incorporate a reconnected street grid, public transit, biking infrastructure and pedestrian improvements.
These options provide drastically different visions for the future of the corridor.
A “no build” scenario would leave the highway and its harms to community health, environment and economy in place for the rest of the century. Highway expansion goes a step further, worsening these harms. MnDOT’s inclusion of highway expansion plans also directly contradicts resolutions passed by Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2021, which both stated their opposition to highway expansion. Further, it contradicts MnDOT’s goal to reduce vehicle miles traveled as part of climate change mitigation efforts outlined in the so-called Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan.
More importantly, these proposals for various highway configurations minimize or altogether ignore the impacts of the highway on local communities. Air and noise pollution lead to significant health and environmental impacts, and the highway negatively affects mobility for residents. These burdens also disproportionately fall on residents of color, making up a large percentage of the nearly 100,000 residents living in Minneapolis and St. Paul communities along the highway.
Mike Hughes, who presided over the recent rollout of the various options, brushed aside these concerns: “Trust me, [racial equity, community health, and climate considerations] still exist,” he said.
We should not perpetuate the failures of highway planning in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, we see how promises of time, freedom and speed of urban highways achieve only car dependency and harm to Minnesotans.
Under increasing pressure from constituents — including those who gave testimony and shared stories of their experience with the highway — MnDOT released an at-grade boulevard option. This would mean eliminating the highway trench and creating a boulevard-like roadway with dedicated space for cars, bikes, pedestrians and public transit.
Although the at-grade boulevard options are a step in the right direction, their proposal leaves many questions about land use surrounding the corridor, as well as diverse transit options for those without a car. Their data does not account for changes in land use, and their effects on commuting choice as a result of potential redevelopment and housing that could come to the corridor. This is largely because their models rely on land use assumptions from 2040 local comprehensive plans for Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
It is unclear whether their proposal leaves room for the Twin Cities Boulevard, a more expansive, community-driven vision for the corridor that includes a highway-to-boulevard conversion, reconnected street grid, and redevelopment of excess highway land for affordable housing and businesses. If MnDOT continues to prioritize highways over community livability, their vision would be more like the Hiawatha corridor in Minneapolis, a similarly designed roadway corridor unfriendly to pedestrians, cyclists and development.
As the project enters its next phase — a scoping period to evaluate the different proposals before the first tier of the environmental impact assessment studies — we must continue to demand meaningful change, center community voices and environmental justice, and push back against outdated planning logic. Public comment on the proposals is currently open on MnDOT’s website.
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