Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Advocates ask MnDOT to dream big in I-94 reconstruction, replace section with multi-use boulevard

A sign place on a chair
(From left to right) members of OurStreets Minneapolis José Antonio Zayas Cabán, Alex Burns, Joe Harrington and Carly Ellefsen place a sign reading "A better future is possible. Support the Twin Cities Boulevard for Rethinking I-94" at MnDOT headquarters in St. Paul on July 17.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2023

Representatives from the state and Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils sent a letter to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Tuesday morning asking it to incorporate recommendations to deconstruct a part of I-94.

The request was led by OurStreets, an alternative transportation advocacy group. They put out a report last month detailing a proposal to make a seven-and-a-half mile portion of I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul a thoroughfare boulevard with more room for parks, houses and businesses.

Alex Burns is leading the charge with OurStreets. He joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to explain the proposal.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: This morning, representatives from the state and Minneapolis and Saint Paul city councils requested in a letter that MnDOT incorporate recommendations from a report that supports deconstruction of a part of I-94.

Now, the request was led by OurStreets. That's an alternative transportation advocacy group. Last month, they released a report detailing a proposal to make a 7 and 1/2 mile long portion of I-94 between Minneapolis and Saint Paul a thoroughfare boulevard with more room for parks and houses and businesses. Alex Burns is leading the charge with OurStreets. And Alex is on the line right now. Welcome to the program.

ALEX BURNS: Thank you so much for having me.

CATHY WURZER: So many of us who drive I-94 know it's getting kind of old, and it is in disrepair. And MnDOT's in the midst of this nearly, what, 20-year process to evaluate how they're going to address that stretch of I-94. In this letter you and some elected officials released this morning, you say that Minot's evaluation of the situation has some flaws. So what are they?

ALEX BURNS: Yeah. So we're concerned that MnDOT's current process, the way that they've set it up, it leaves out a lot of the impacts of the highway on surrounding neighborhoods and puts traffic capacity above the health and well-being of surrounding neighborhoods. So while Minot might say that they're evaluating things like air pollution or racial equity or the impact on the climate, when we really took a closer look at the way that they're studying different project options, those things were secondary to the movement of cars and trucks.

And we feel like, especially because of this highway's history being intentionally routed through historically Black and immigrant neighborhoods and then continuing to pollute those same neighborhoods in the decades that followed, now that we're making this generational decision of what we want to come next that the people who are most impacted by this project should be prioritized with whatever comes next.

CATHY WURZER: So in a sense, would you-- it would be a way to heal old wounds, then, to deconstruct this part of the highway? Is that what you're proposing, in a sense?

ALEX BURNS: Yeah. So we've been leading what we're calling the Twin Cities Boulevard campaign, and this is a grassroots movement to reimagine this stretch of highway. And it's important to note that this decision doesn't come out of nowhere. We're nearing this decision because the highway is breaking down. And so one way or the other, the Department of Transportation needs to decide what comes next.

So we've been advocating to replace the highway with a boulevard, a thoroughfare like you mentioned, that has place for all modes of transportation, placing the remaining land in a land trust to be used for new uses determined by the community, like affordable housing and space for local businesses, libraries, parks, et cetera, and then also leveraging this investment to create reparations for those historic and ongoing harms and prioritizing those benefits for those who have been most impacted.

CATHY WURZER: Of course, we're talking about a highway, an interstate that carries a lot of commerce through the cities. If you go in this direction, obviously, it's going to cause a lot of traffic challenges. It would be a huge, huge change. How would you route commerce, then, through the Twin Cities? What would be your plan for that?

ALEX BURNS: Yeah. This is something that the report talks about. And it's definitely the most common question that we get. And so the way-- I think the best way that we can look at traffic is by looking at examples of projects in other cities. And what we've seen is that any time there's been a highway that has been removed or downsized or closed for construction, within a couple of weeks, people adjust their habits. And that includes freight and commerce. And any predictions of traffic nightmares never come true.

But on the flip side of this, it's also important to note that building wider and wider highways hasn't worked either. For example, in Houston, when they spent $3 billion to add 11 lanes to Interstate 10, their congestion was worse than before the project just three years later. And so the reason why we feel like a boulevard will actually improve congestion is because we get what we build for.

If we replace the highway with better transit and bike lanes and sidewalks and new walkable businesses and homes, definitely some people would continue to drive. But the data tells us that others would drive less and use new options or work remotely or drive during different times and take other routes. And some of this is that we feel like traffic would work itself out just fine. And that's what we've seen in other cities.

CATHY WURZER: But what about the thousands of trucks that could possibly make their way onto residential roads? Or is that not something that you're worried about?

ALEX BURNS: Definitely a key consideration. What we found is that about-- there's about 140,000 trips on I-94 per day. Less than 6,000 of those trips are trucks. So it makes up a relatively small amount of the traffic. But we also looked at when those truck trips are happening. And most of them, for understandable reasons, they don't travel during peak hours, so they're traveling during the night or when traffic is-- when I-94 is not congested.

And so they could use a new boulevard and travel just fine with maybe a 10 or 15 mile per hour difference in their travel times. But the majority of commerce that's serving this region uses 494 or 694. And so we anticipate that wouldn't change if we change this segment to 594.

CATHY WURZER: There's probably decisions-- well, there would be engineering decisions but also rethinking that interstate is a big political decision. And I'm wondering, do you really think that lawmakers have the political fortitude to deconstruct I-94?

ALEX BURNS: Yeah. So I think that what-- you raise a great point. Ultimately, this isn't an engineering decision because we can engineer any type of project. It really is a values question.

And we believe that given the history of I-94 and its disparate impacts on particularly communities of color and the fact that we continue to see people being essentially poisoned by this infrastructure that they live near, that not only should we, that we believe MnDOT has a moral obligation to do a project that doesn't just perpetuate those harms but actively invest in reparations in Rondo and in Cedar-Riverside and reconnects all neighborhoods and addresses these ongoing impacts.

So like all movements, I think there's a period where people need to get familiar with the project and with the idea, but we've had a lot of momentum. And I think elected officials are recognizing that Minnesota really has an opportunity to lead here.

CATHY WURZER: How do you change the minds of those who think this is just an absurd idea?

ALEX BURNS: Well, I think to us, there's nothing radical about wanting every neighborhood to have access to things other communities take for granted, like clean air and walkable communities and parks and generational wealth. And the fact is is that the highway took those things away from tens of thousands of people.

And really, if we're thinking about it, the truly radical idea was routing I-94 through city neighborhoods in the first place, demolishing tens of thousands of homes and businesses. So something like that, I would hope, wouldn't be feasible today. So if we recognize that was a mistake, we should also recognize that now it's our obligation to try to fix that.

CATHY WURZER: As you know, Alex, there's also the land bridge that's being talked about in the Rondo area of Saint Paul. How might this actually dovetail into that project? Might it make your effort easier now that your friends in Rondo are working on the land bridge?

ALEX BURNS: Yeah. Yeah, great question. So we really view these campaigns as two parts of the same movement. And the work that ReConnect Rondo has done and elders in the community have done to document the neighborhood's history and build a vision for an African-American cultural enterprise district is really important. And we fully support that.

I think our message is that Rondo can be reconnected without rebuilding the highway underneath it. Because if a land bridge was built over top of the highway, it would leave a lot of the harms in place like air pollution and health impacts. And it would also leave out a lot of other impacted neighborhoods.

So we talked about that in the report. And our goal is to absolutely get to a solution where these things can work together. A boulevard could run underneath the land bridge in Rondo, but we want to build solidarity so that we're addressing all of the impacts and making sure that all neighborhoods are served by this solution.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Alex, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

ALEX BURNS: Thank you so much.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Alex Burns. He's manager of advocacy and policy at the group OurStreets Minneapolis.

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