Jul 21, 2023

No, rethinking I

Historical scrutiny about the effects of urban freeways on communities, combined with the urgent need for climate action, makes the question of “too much ambition” posed in a recent Star Tribune editorial sound silly.

There’s a journalism adage that, for any headline ending with a question mark, the answer is always “no.” Using the interrogative is certainly a tempting frame, and one that I’m also guilty of adopting. (See this example on drought, this one on concrete diverters, or this one on an old rail spur.)

The recent Star Tribune Editorial on the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) proposed options for reconstructing central Interstate 94, “Is Rethinking I-94 too ambitious?” is a good example of the interrogative headline in action. Historical scrutiny about the terrible effects of urban freeways on their communities, combined with the urgent need for climate action to reduce driving, makes the question of “too much ambition” sound silly.

Before jumping to conclusions, it’s important to understand that major changes to I-94 are still years away. Replacing and reconstructing the 60-year-old freeway, nearing the end of its “design life,” is going to take a long time. MnDOT is currently in its “scoping stage,” about sixteen months where “develops alternatives” before going into years of study and engineering around details. Actual construction is not set to take place until at least 2028.

In contemplating the future of I-94, this summer is the first time the public has had rough plans to examine, and a few of them are pretty eye-opening. As I wrote when the idea for an “boulevard” was first floated by transportation advocates, the “at-grade” options represent an ambitious sea change that would transform a 14-mile corridor between Minneapolis and St. Paul. MNDOT deserves praise for putting this kind of bold alternative on the table, and it’s an idea that should be taken seriously.

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The key benefits of an at-grade boulevard would include opening up huge swaths of valuable urban land for other uses, reducing speeding in urban neighborhoods, reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) with fewer lanes and less traffic, and reducing harmful air and noise pollution currently take years off the lives of the state’s most vulnerable people. Those would be amazing outcomes.

There are riveting examples from around the world that show that, counterintuitively, traffic often either moves elsewhere or simply disappears. This happened, for example, after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in 2007. Other examples come from Seattle, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and many other countries reinforce this reverse “induced demand” phenomenon.

That said, even if you assume that half the traffic “evaporates”, that still leaves around 60,000 cars a day, which is a lot for a four-lane boulevard to handle. By contrast, Highway 55 / Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis averages about 25,000 cars a day, giving you a rough sense of what a boulevard option might feel like if designed according to historic parameters.

However, the at-grade designs include bus rapid transit (BRT) that would have three stops along the route, and would maintain plenty of capacity – 20,000 people per hour – to move people on the corridor. If we imagine a substantial shift in how people get around, the boulevard proposal could handle the load. Just because it’s hard to envision that amount of change taking place in the next 10 years, doesn’t mean change is not possible. It’s good that advocacy groups like Twin Cities Boulevard are continuing to build support for this alternative.

Meanwhile, other design alternatives MnDOT that add lanes are terrible choices in the year 2023. Twenty years ago, it was conventional wisdom the MnDOT would expand I-94 at the first opportunity. After all, traffic engineering and been predicting ever-increasing traffic volumes.

These days, when commute patterns looking much more flexible than previously assumed, and per-capita vehicle miles traveled no longer steadily rising, spending billions to expand the freeway should be a non-starter. Local elected officials in both Minneapolis and St. Paul should make it clear that the agency’s “Expanded Freeway” options are unacceptable.

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Furthermore, recent changes to state law add another wrinkle to the “expansion” options. This year, the state Legislature created new agency rules that will make it difficult for MnDOT to expand VMT without serious mitigation around alternative modes. In the case of adding a lane on I-94, it’s difficult to imagine anything the agency could do that would offset that level of damage to transportation goals.

“We are monitoring that,” MnDOT’s Project Manager, Melissa Barnes, admitted during the press briefing last month, discussing the new state VMT law. “It’s something we’re aware of and will learn more about over this winter.”

Meanwhile, interesting alternatives lay between the two extremes. Both the “Reduced Freeway” and the “Local/Regional” options have features that would be big upgrades over the status quo. Personally, I’m enamored with the “local/regional” plan, because it includes quality transit and transforms the residential streets on either side of the freeway footprint.

In the 60 years since I-94 was constructed, there’s been a stark shift in how urban freeways are remembered. Thanks to decades of community efforts by people like Marvin Anderson, David V. Taylor, and many others, I-94 is a textbook case of freeway destroying thriving Black communities, made famous around the country. It’s thanks to their work that there’s political possibility for a freeway cap, or “land bridge” in St. Paul’s historic Rondo neighborhood. According to the MnDOT spokesperson, that’s a separate but connected process.

“We are aware of them, coordinating with them and moving forward in tandem,” said project manager Melissa Barnes.

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Sadly, critical attitudes on the part of historians and others haven’t really changed the practices of state DOTs. Even now, the Texas DOT is destroying working-class housing to expand freeways in Houston. The Louisiana DOT is harming a Black neighborhood to expand a freeway in Shreveport. The Washington DOT just expanded I-5 through Downtown Seattle. The Oregon DOT has been trying for years to expand a downtown freeway through one of the last remaining Black neighborhoods in Portland, though community pressure and budget overruns have halted it yet again.

It’s all deeply counterproductive when transportation carbon emissions continue to rise. Every day climate news like record-low ice in the Antarctic or out-of-control Canadian wildfires alarm anyone paying attention.

To make a long story short, the options MnDOT put on the table are not too ambitious. The agency has a chance to lead the nation in the redressing harmful mistakes of previous generations. A public engagement survey is available now, to gauge opinions about the various options. If there was ever a time for the Minnesota DOT to be ambitious, it’s now.

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Bill Lindeke is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geography, Environment and Society. He is the author of multiple books on Twin Cities culture and history, most recently St. Paul: an Urban Biography. Follow Bill on Twitter: @BillLindeke.

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