Interstate 94 eastbound looking towards downtown St. Paul on October 5, 2022. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

The Minnesota Department of Transportation on Monday released 10 options for the future of Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul, including potential lane expansions that drew the ire of public officials and environmental activists.  

Minnesota’s “Rethinking I-94” project launched in 2016 to shape the future of the 7.5-mile stretch of the interstate between Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis and Marion Street in St. Paul. The project includes an acknowledgment that the original construction of the interstate displaced thousands of people, particularly in diverse neighborhoods like Rondo, a historic middle-class Black community in St. Paul. 

The interstate currently sits well below street level. State officials presented designs that included two options that would remove the freeway and build an elevated road with bus rapid transit and more space for pedestrians.

Another design calls for a new highway configuration aimed at reducing traffic lanes and adding dedicated spaces for buses. 

However, two of the options would add vehicle lanes to the highway, which has three to four lanes in each direction throughout the area. Their inclusion upset public officials on the project’s advisory committee, including St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali, who said it flew in the face of goals to address climate change and racial equity.

“Why is expansion even on the table?” Jalali asked. 

Representatives for Minneapolis City Council Member Robin Wonsley and state Senator Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, among others, also expressed displeasure that expanding vehicle lanes was on the table. Several members of the public also voiced displeasure. 

“Let’s just be really clear here that what we want is for our residents and our constituents to be healthy and to be able to breathe and to have the ability to walk and take transit,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, who was among the critics. 

One of 10 options for redeveloping Interstate 94 presented by MnDOT on Monday, July 17, 2023. Credit: MnDOT

Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. People of color are disproportionately likely to live near major roadways that expose them to vehicle pollution, state data shows. People of color are also more likely to rely on public transportation to get around.

State transportation officials were adamant that the 10 early design ideas are simply meant to put viable options on the table, and said no decisions have been made. Construction on the project would begin in 2028 at the earliest. The state will spend the next year narrowing the options down into a “scoping decision document,” which will move some options forward for an environmental review. In theory, all 10 options could be included in the document. 

“At this point, our goal is to determine what could potentially work in this corridor,” said Transportation Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger.  

Early options

An alternative proposed by the pedestrian and bicycle advocacy group, Our Streets Minneapolis, calls for the state to convert the sunken freeway into a boulevard street with a total of four lanes of traffic, ample pedestrian and bike spaces, dedicated transit lanes, and room for new housing, parks, and businesses. The community group’s vision has garnered support from some residents and elected officials who live along the project corridor. 

Two designs released by the state Monday follow that general style. The two “at-grade” options would raise the freeway to standard street level, narrow it to two travel lanes in each direction, add dedicated lanes for buses, and beef up bike and pedestrian infrastructure. The options differed in whether the bus lanes were located in the center or on the edges of the roadway. 

One of 10 options for redeveloping Interstate 94 presented by MnDOT on Monday, July 17, 2023. Credit: MnDOT

Those options received the most support from public commenters at the meeting. 

One option would shrink each side of the east-west freeway to two car lanes and one “paid pass” lane shared between buses and drivers who want to pay extra to bypass rush hour traffic. A similar plan calls for reconfiguring each side of the interstate into three car lanes, and one shared bus and paid pass lane. 

Another vision is to create a smaller express freeway with fewer exits, while adding two lanes of local roads on each side moving at much slower speeds. 

Three of the options involve very little new design work, and would essentially repair the existing footprint of Interstate-94 with some noise reduction work and pedestrian improvements. 

José Antonio Zayas Cabán, executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis, said the proposed alternatives don’t go far enough to address racial injustice and environmental pollution brought to the area by the interstate. 

“After I-94 was built, the communities that remained live in some of the worst climate, health, and economic conditions in the area.  We cannot continue to ask these people to live in the same substandard conditions for another generation,” he said. 

The department of transportation said it is continuing to work with the nonprofit, Reconnect Rondo, which has a vision to place a land bridge over the freeway in the Rondo neighborhood. That project has received funding from the state and federal government. 

Keith Baker, executive director of Reconnect Rondo, said he was excited to talk with community members about the options at a neighborhood event scheduled for August 17. But he said that transportation officials should consider different options for individual communities along the project corridor. 

“Maybe one size does not fit all,” Baker said. 

Optimizing transit

Future public transportation on the corridor is unlikely to include a new form of rail. Advocates have long championed installing some form of new underground subway or hard rail infrastructure connecting downtown Minneapolis to St. Paul. 

Robert McHaney, a consultant who worked with the state on the project, said planners are mostly considering adding a dedicated, blocked off lane or shoulder space for buses. Dedicated bus shoulders on Interstate-94 are currently only available east of the Mississippi River. 

Currently, the Route 94 bus serves the corridor, making just one stop between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul at Snelling Avenue. Planners are considering making that into a rapid transit service that could also stop at Dale Street in St. Paul and near 27th Avenue Southeast in Minneapolis. 

 “Folks wanted fast, frequent, and reliable service,” McHaney said. “We heard that over and over.” 

Public comments are being taken on the designs through the fall. Find more information at the department of transportation’s website, where a survey will go live this week. The final design is likely to be approved in 2027.

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...