By Transition Town –
ASAP’s Planning Group
As the climate crisis unfolds, it’s clear that transformative measures are needed to reduce our society’s carbon emissions and heal our social and economic divisions. Here in the Twin Cities, we have a great opportunity with the “Rethinking I-94” project directed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation — a multi-year project addressing the 7.5-mile stretch of the highway between Marion Street in St. Paul and Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis (and skirting South St. Anthony Park). But so far MnDOT appears to be squandering that opportunity.
That’s why Transition Town — All St. Anthony Park group urges everyone to respond to MnDOT’s current public survey for feedback on its nine redesign alternatives for Interstate 94. Most of them are only slight tweaks to the trenched highway that sliced neighborhoods apart 60 years ago. We believe any alternative that rebuilds the highway as-is or even larger is unconscionable in the face of the climate emergency we are all living through. More radical measures are needed, and delaying action is unacceptable.
“At-grade” options have some merit
Just three of MnDOT’s nine alternatives are clearly smaller than the current highway, and of those, only the two “at-grade” options have a lower speed, traffic-calming aspect, similar to the Twin Cities Boulevard proposal that Transition Town and the St. Anthony Park Community Council have endorsed.
Called “At-Grade A” and “At-Grade B” in the survey, these two options reclaim land from the current highway lanes, interchanges and sloped sides of the trench — land that can be returned to the community in land trusts for housing, commercial buildings or other public uses. Once in place, they would cost less to maintain compared to the many bridges, overpasses and retaining walls needed for a grade-separated highway. We think these at-grade options are the only ones that look to the future, addressing human needs rather than simply enabling more traffic.
We think we should be asking questions that go deeper than MnDOT’s “What do you think of these nine alternatives?” For example:
• If we didn’t already have a loud, polluting freeway in the heart of our cities, would we really choose a highway as the best use for that urban land?
• If we make a giant 50-year financial investment now in the middle of St. Paul and Minneapolis, what should it be, as we face the climate crisis?
We urge everyone to fill out the MnDOT survey and reject all of the options presented except the at-grade options … or if you feel like it, reject those as well.
Transit is under-considered
Near the end, the survey asks what other alternatives should be added. Here you might suggest that MnDOT has not thought enough about a rail connection, because the “Rethinking” area stops short of both downtowns. (Who needs a train to just Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis or Marion Street in Saint Paul?)
We could also learn from the European S-Bahn model that connects adjacent cities. Before filling the I-94 trench, we could install a fast, frequent underground train between our downtowns, with one or two stops (the U of M and Snelling, for instance) — a system comparable to other examples in the world. See sidebar for a recent post about this on Streets.mn.
MnDOT should also consider the regional rail links that are possible as more long-distance rail gets built, like the just-approved train to Duluth, the discussed line to Eau Claire, the second daily train soon to connect Chicago and more that may be on the horizon as the climate crisis becomes even clearer and trains become more attractive as a travel mode.
The current Rethinking I-94 alternatives also fail to consider aspects of the highway that may affect St. Anthony Park the most. This is because the project area of Rethinking I-94 is too narrowly drawn to the highway corridor, not its affected areas.
One overlooked topic is Highway 280, which is even older than I-94, but is not getting a big public input process. Without I-94, 280 would not need to exist. With an at-grade version of I-94, could the stretch of 280 south of Energy Park Drive become a traffic-calmed Eustis Street instead, reconnecting the divided parts of South St. Anthony Park? Filling in the 280 trench would create up to seven blocks of valuable land in the heart of the Creative Enterprise Zone for housing, businesses, or much-needed park space for residents — no longer adjacent to a noisy, polluting highway.
The second topic is how MnDOT can better take responsibility for the freight traffic generated by the railroad yards (which all funnels to the highway system) and lessen the effects of that traffic on South St. Anthony Park and Midway residents and streets. There has long been the question of connecting Pierce Butler Route to Energy Park; as long as semi-trucks are the means of off-loading freight trains, a need for that connection will exist, and now is the time to bring what’s called a “freight alleviator” street into the Rethinking I-94 project.
The last questions in the survey ask for additional information that’s important for the public to know about each alternative, and about the “livability framework” MnDOT is using. This is where Transition Town thinks it’s important to ask:
• What is the scale of the alternatives shown? MnDOT’s drawings give no idea how much land each alternative takes up, and the proportions are misleading.
• How does each one affect air pollution, noise pollution, public health and environmental justice?
• Will MnDOT take seriously its commitment to reducing “vehicle miles traveled?” Will it acknowledge that expanded highways are inevitably filled with more traffic, or “induced demand”? (The reverse is also true — reducing highway space leads to “traffic evaporation.”)
• How will livability for surrounding communities be weighed against the factors MnDOT has historically valued more, like vehicle capacity? How will MnDOT evaluate its livability goals?
The survey is open until the end of October. Like many online surveys, it’s awkward to use because you can’t see all the different options at once for comparison. Despite the survey’s shortcomings, we urge neighbors to fill it out with our shared future in mind, and not the short-sighted thinking of the past.
This commentary was written by members of Transition Town–ASAP’s planning group. They welcome any feedback at info@TransitionASAP.org. All are welcome to attend their monthly meetings (second Wednesdays, 7:00 p.m., details at transitionasap.org).
MnDOT’s Rethinking I-94 Alternatives Survey
The survey is open through the end of October: tinyurl.com/94options
“Rethinking I-94: The Case for a Twin Cities S-Bahn” by Jesse Cook on Streets.mn: tinyurl.com/s-bahn
Twin Cities Boulevard twincitiesboulevard.org