Seeking public input on how to upgrade Interstate 94 between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, state transportation officials got an earful Monday on an idea backed by Our Streets Minneapolis that's rapidly gaining attention: filling in the freeway trench and replacing that stretch of I-94 with a transit-friendly commercial corridor.
Another grassroots proposal comes from ReConnect Rondo, the St. Paul-based campaign that wants to construct a land bridge over I-94 between Chatsworth and Grotto streets for an African American cultural enterprise district. That effort would mitigate the damage to the vibrant middle-class Black community called Rondo that was destroyed by I-94 in the 1950s and '60s.
Driven by racial reconciliation and climate change, the interest shown Monday in the Minnesota Department of Transportation project called Rethinking I-94 underscores community hopes that the agency will think outside the box of typical highway needs.
And the project itself reflects MnDOT's interest in acknowledging past decisions that traded Rondo for regional growth — and its unprecedented decision to involve the public early in the process as it determines the project's goals.
MnDOT officials have been "very good partners in that they've demonstrated an openness to learn ... they've brainstormed with us the various approaches that it may require for a project like ours to emerge," said ReConnect Rondo Executive Director Keith Baker.
MnDOT promises to do better by local communities that were unable to influence I-94's design 60 years ago, and will consider community-grown alternatives with an open mind, said Sheila Kauppi, the deputy Metro District engineer who is overseeing Rethinking I-94.
"A full range of options are on the table," she said. "We have not eliminated any."
The project area includes seven institutions of higher education and four major stadiums, and plays a key role in moving goods across the Twin Cities metro.
MnDOT repeatedly has stated that its main responsibility is to repair bridges, retaining walls and pavement. A draft "purpose and need" statement also notes the goals of reducing congestion and crashes while enhancing walkability, bike-ability and livability around the freeway.
The final version of that document, anticipated by year's end, is expected to lay out a range of alternatives considered worthy of further consideration. But it likely will be years before MnDOT settles on a course of action and how much it will cost.
The fact that the agency is soliciting public input this early in the process stemmed from the decision to rethink the way it engages community, said MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger.
Russ Stark, St. Paul's chief resilience officer, pushed back against MnDOT's stated goal of greater mobility for vehicles because, he said, "We don't actually think greater mobility for vehicles in this corridor is a good solution."
DFL Sen. Omar Fateh, whose south Minneapolis district borders on I-94, "is hearing a lot from his constituents, who really wanted to see the most ambitious proposal possible," said legislative assistant Chris Meyer. "We want to see a stronger emphasis on reducing vehicle miles traveled, because transportation is the biggest source of carbon pollution in the state."
The debate has been in the works for several years. ReConnect Rondo, which launched in 2009, aims to cap a half-mile segment of I-94 in St. Paul, at an estimated cost of $15 million for pre-development activities, up to $300 million for the land bridge and $170 million for the enterprise district development on top.
ReConnect Rondo is studying anti-displacement and restorative development modeling with the help of $6.2 million from the Legislature, and St. Paul has offered the campaign $179,000 to date. City officials plan to help the project apply for a grant from the federal Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, dedicated to repairing neighborhoods deprived of wealth by transportation infrastructure.
According to the so-called Twin Cities Boulevard proposal offered by Our Streets (formerly the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition), the 7.5-mile segment of I-94 between Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis and Marion Street in St. Paul would be redesigned as a boulevard bounded by economic development and transportation alternatives to cars.
The proposal, inspired by other highway-to-boulevard conversions such as in San Francisco and Rochester, N.Y., was unveiled earlier this year.
"We wanted to bring forward the Twin Cities Boulevard in response to the call to create a project that was truly transformative and that didn't just repair the highway or reform the highway," said Alex Burns, Our Streets' transportation policy coordinator.
The freeway conversion proposal emerged after Our Streets' organizers door-knocked along the project corridor, talking to residents about freeway noise and the air purifiers they used to mitigate traffic emissions.
"We have met people who were displaced in the initial development of Interstate 94, who didn't realize it was possible to restore what was there," said Our Streets Advocacy Director José Antonio Zayas Cabán.
The Twin Cities Boulevard campaign does not yet have a cost estimate. Organizers are eyeing federal transportation funding and hope that Minneapolis and St. Paul will apply for a Reconnecting Communities grant to study the costs and benefits of boulevard conversion. Neither city has yet agreed.
MnDOT has not yet conducted traffic studies or public surveys of support for either the freeway conversion or land bridge alternatives. There are major differences between the two campaigns, which don't see eye to eye.
Our Streets' advocates laid out various reasons why they believe a land bridge would be inadequate, since it would leave the freeway "and its resulting impacts in place." That prompted ReConnect Rondo to ask Our Streets to stand on its own merits rather than attempting "to advance itself by discrediting and undermining the work" of land bridge proponents.
Kauppi said she has been learning about other examples of land bridges and highway conversions, but cautioned that the segment of I-94 in question is unique. It carries about 150,000 vehicles daily, she said.
"Some of the other states, they have a much different traffic volume that they are handling — much lesser," she said.
In a statement, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said I-94 "should not remain as a wall dividing our communities," and added that he was glad that "MnDOT will consider all options on the table — including a boulevard conversion — as a part of the rigorous environmental study."