Brooklyn Center residents say the Minnesota Department of Transportation is not taking community concerns about environmental justice, displacement, and safety into account as it plans to improve a highway connecting the north metro to Minneapolis.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is moving into the environmental review stage of a project to improve Highway 252 and Interstate 94 between Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, and Minneapolis along the Mississippi River.
Current proposals show MnDOT wants to convert Highway 252, which has street-level intersections managed with stoplights, into a freeway with exit ramps.
MnDOT is considering four design options heading into the environmental review process this winter:
- A four-lane freeway with bus-only shoulders.
- A six-lane freeway with a lane each for carpoolers and E-ZPass subscribers.
- A six-lane freeway with bus-only shoulders.
- A no-build option that largely leaves the current roadway, which has four to six lanes in different stretches, intact with street-level stoplight intersections. No-build options are required for highway projects.
The state believes that converting Highway 252 into a freeway will reduce crashes by eliminating stoplights. Many rear-end collisions occur at the highway’s intersections as drivers transition from I-94 to Highway 252, according to MnDOT. Changing it to a freeway would improve safety by separating transportation modes, increasing vehicle mobility by removing intersections, and reducing traffic on local roads, agency officials said.
But elected officials and community members say MnDOT’s proposed designs don’t reflect the needs and desires of area residents, and will add vehicle traffic and pollution to the corridor, which is considered a state environmental justice community based on income and diversity metrics.
Brooklyn Center Mayor April Graves told MnDOT officials at an October 25 meeting about the project that she was frustrated with the planning process. MnDOT’s proposed designs don’t reflect state goals for improving equity, she said, adding that the vast majority of public comments on the designs were negative, but prompted no changes from MnDOT.
“It doesn’t feel like you’ve listened,” Graves said.
MnDOT’s Mark Lindeberg said that the department went through all of the 500-plus comments submitted and responded to all of them. Ultimately, he said, the original “purpose and needs” elements for the project finalized in September 2021 played the biggest role in sticking with the four design options moving forward.
The biggest priorities for the project are vehicle mobility, improving walking and biking conditions, and vehicle safety, according to the purpose and needs document.
“Were there major changes? No, there were not,” Lindeberg said.
An environmental justice area
The project area along I-94 and Highway 252 in north Minneapolis, Brooklyn Center, and Brooklyn Park is among the most diverse in the state. The corridor is considered an environmental justice area by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency; most of the surrounding neighborhoods are home to more than 40 percent people of color, and more than 35 percent of the households are low income.
Transportation is Minnesota’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, the primary driver of climate change, according to a 2023 state report.
MnDOT has a stated goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled by 20 percent by 2050. While MnDOT officials acknowledge that converting Highway 252 into a freeway will increase traffic, they say early analysis indicates that the project would increase vehicle miles traveled in the metro region by less than 1 percent in the next 20 years.
“Often our goal on projects is to provide options that include alternatives to driving, such as providing shoulders for buses and managed lanes, or E-ZPass lanes. The Hwy 252/I94 project is advancing alternatives with both features as possible solutions,” MnDOT spokesperson Ricardo Lopez wrote in an email.
Longtime Brooklyn Center resident Nahid Khan said the process feels like a sham, and that she doesn’t think MnDOT is listening to community members. She is a member of a grassroots group called the Highway 252 Safety Task Force, which opposes freeway designs for the corridor.
Khan also participated in a MnDOT community advisory committee that worked on an equity and health assessment for the project. The group’s final report, filed in May 2023, found that residents in the project area are 20 to 25 percent more likely to experience asthma or other chronic health issues than other parts of Hennepin County.
The equity and health assessment also found that 14 percent of households in the project area don’t own cars; an average of 9 percent of households don’t have cars across all of Hennepin County.
“All we wanted was safety improvements. Nobody wanted a freeway,” Khan said.
Khan and others also say the freeway designs will displace homes and businesses. Brooklyn Center City Council Member Dan Jerzak said the freeway option could impact 40 businesses, many of which are owned by people of color. He also fears a loss of tax revenue and customers for current businesses along the corridor if a freeway design makes it easier to bypass the city entirely.
Steps to come
Major highway construction in Minnesota is a long process, with years passing between projects being proposed and public engagement, design options, environmental review, final design selection, and construction.
The Highway 252 project is entering an environmental review phase for the four design options, during which the state will analyze issues like air pollution impacts. That phase is expected to finish in 2026, and construction is tentatively scheduled for 2028.
MnDOT will need municipal consent from the cities of Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, and Minneapolis. Minneapolis passed a resolution in opposition to designs that expand vehicle lanes on the I-94 segment of the corridor.
While nothing has officially been decided, many in Brooklyn Center see the freeway design options that are moving forward as a significant development toward the project’s outcome.
Graves and others at the October 25 meeting said they want MnDOT to consider non-freeway options that will slow traffic and improve safety on the roadway during the environmental review phase.
“To me, it seems that the alternatives that are being studied are so similar that there’s not going to be much difference in what you find out from the Environmental Impact Statement” Graves said. “But if you included an alternative that was drastically different than the other three, then you would have a better understanding of the environmental air quality impacts.”
MnDOT Deputy Commissioner Kim Collins said she agreed that the process doesn’t feel intuitive and easy to explain. She said the department will look into potential changes to make it more accessible to residents.
“I think that’s something I think we will continue to have to work on,” Collins said.