In the coming years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) will be rebuilding I-94 through Saint Paul and Minneapolis. The planning process now underway, which MnDOT calls Rethinking I-94, will set the stage for what can be studied, funded and ultimately built.

The construction of I-94 in the 1960s destroyed homes, businesses, livelihoods and neighborhood cohesion. The cultural and financial impacts in Saint Paul’s largely African-American Rondo neighborhood were devastating and continue to the present day. Homes and businesses were taken in other neighborhoods. The freeway became a physical and a psychological barrier.

While I-94 provides high-speed travel for cars and trucks, those vehicles with their noise and emissions inflict a daily toll on people living along the I-94 corridor, many of whom are low-income and people of color. The highway impedes access to the light-rail Green Line. Its interchanges in Saint Paul funnel traffic onto a small number of streets—Cretin, Snelling, Hamline, Lexington, Dale and Marion—contributing to high levels of traffic and negative impacts along those streets.

In December a coalition of 25 groups, including two groups to which we belong, called on MnDOT to use this project to set a new standard in transportation. The coalition asked for more safety and less traffic with increased access for transit, car-pooling, bicycling and walking. We asked for a more inviting corridor with less noise and healthier air. We asked that it be easier to cross I-94. We called on MnDOT to ensure that the project contribute to regenerative, equitable economic development in neighborhoods where the construction of the freeway caused great harm and a loss of community wealth.

On February 3, the Saint Paul City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on MnDOT and the Federal Highway Administration to truly rethink I-94. Council members Dai Thao and Mitra Jalali worked closely with community members in drafting the resolution. It details the great harms caused by the highway and calls for prioritizing the voices of the historic Rondo neighborhood, their descendants and current residents of the neighborhoods along I-94 in planning the future of the corridor. The resolution calls for bus rapid transit along I-94, an extension of the Midtown Greenway bike route through Saint Paul and the elimination of barriers to walking and bicycling. The City Council resolution says “no” to adding more highway traffic lanes. (To read the resolution, visit bit.ly/I-94saintpaul.)

In discussing the I-94 resolution, City Council president Amy Brendmoen lamented MnDOT’s reconstruction of I-35E on Saint Paul’s East Side. She termed it “a catastrophe in so many ways” with Maryland Avenue looking like a landing strip, bridges that have sidewalks on only one side, an overbuilt and lightly used Cayuga exit ramp and the tragic severing of the Gateway Trail.

In early documents made available to stakeholders, MnDOT has proposed accommodating a 10 to 15 percent increase in traffic on I-94. This goal conflicts with state and local plans that call for a reduction in traffic to enable Minnesota to achieve its climate goals. MnDOT’s current draft environmental documentation also lists walkability, bikeability and safety on intersecting streets as being secondary rather than primary to the project.

In early documents made available to stakeholders, MnDOT has proposed accommodating a 10 to 15 percent increase in traffic on I-94. This goal conflicts with state and local plans that call for a reduction in traffic to enable Minnesota to achieve its climate goals. MnDOT’s current draft environmental documentation also lists walkability, bikeability and safety on intersecting streets as being secondary rather than primary to the project.

The way cities approach transportation is changing across the U.S. In some cities, highways are being replaced with greener streets and new housing and businesses. Cities are achieving economic goals with less driving by reducing subsidies for parking and expanding transit, sidewalks and trails. Cities are promoting the concept of 20-minute neighborhoods where people can meet their basic needs—shopping, groceries, schools, parks, social activities and access to transit—within a 20-minute walk of their home.

If we are going to “rethink” I-94, as MnDOT professes to do, we must identify the future we desire, deeply engage the community in the planning process and commit to the steps that are needed to get to a better future. This first step in the state and federal planning process is critical. Please consider becoming involved.

— Debbie Meister and Barb Thoman

Debbie Meister is a resident of Snelling-Hamline and a member of Neighborhoods First! Barb Thoman is a resident of Merriam Park and a member of the Union Park District Council’s Transportation Committee.

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