Downtown St. Paul from the Dale St. overpass of I-94 in Saint Paul, MN on October 5, 2022 Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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Environmental justice advocates packed a recent public meeting to pressure the Minnesota Department of Transportation to replace Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul with a smaller boulevard, and to express fear that the state is missing an opportunity by not applying for a federal grant. 

The state transportation department is in the midst of its “Rethinking I-94” project, which is studying a 7.5-mile stretch of the highway’s urban core from Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis to Marion Street in St. Paul. 

Construction of the highway in the 1960s displaced thousands of people along the corridor, including in St. Paul’s thriving Black middle-class Rondo neighborhood. Calls to repair those harms are louder than ever. The state transportation department and its partners “are committed to doing better,” Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger said at a September 26 meeting about the project. 

Two grassroots organizations are proposing different treatments to heal those wounds. The St. Paul nonprofit Reconnect Rondo is seeking funding for a land bridge over the interstate that will support housing, businesses, and park space in the neighborhood. Our Streets Minneapolis, a pedestrian and bicyclist activist group, is calling for the urban stretch of interstate to be removed and replaced with a smaller boulevard with two lanes in each direction, separate lanes for mass transit, and bicycle and pedestrian areas lined with trees. 

Dozens of attendees at last month’s project meeting supported the Our Streets proposal, and advocated for the removal of the interstate segment in question. The section of Interstate 94 under discussion can reach eight lanes of traffic at its maximum, traveling east and west at a posted speed limit of 55-miles-an-hour.

“Ultimately these projects are rooted in reversing the devastating impact of environmental racism in our communities,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, who is on a planning committee for the Rethinking I-94 project. 

Chance for federal funding

Planning for both alternatives could be funded by the federal government. The U.S. interstate highway system tore through dozens of primarily Black urban communities when it was constructed in the 1960s. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law established a $1 billion Reconnecting Communities Pilot discretionary fund, which over the next five years will allocate research and planning dollars to local governments aimed at helping communities that were cut off from economic opportunities by infrastructure projects. 

The deadline to apply for the 2022 funding round is October 13. State transportation officials said at the September project meeting that the department does not plan to apply for the funding this year because it’s still weighing multiple design options. The state will consider applying in the future, Daubenberger said. 

For some elected officials like Conley, that pace is too slow. 

“We have such a great opportunity right now with the federal fund available to do something about it,” Conley said in an interview. 

The state may be passing this year, but St. Paul and Reconnect Rondo will be submitting a joint federal grant application, city and nonprofit officials said.

“Organizations like ours fit the program model. We are exactly the type of community driven entity that the program is designed to support. We are pleased that the city is a co-applicant,” Reconnect Rondo executive director Keith Baker said via email.

Minneapolis will not be applying for the grant this year, a city spokesperson said.

The Rondo land bridge would create a “cap” over Interstate 94 between between Concordia Avenue (formerly Rondo Avenue) and St. Anthony Avenue from Dale Street to Lexington Parkway. Reconnect Rondo aims to create an “African-American cultural, enterprise district” with up to 1,400 housing units, commercial and community buildings, and open park space on 21 acres of land. 

A rendering for the Land Bridge, and idea which would attempt to connect the Rondo community that was split in two by the construction of I-94. Credit: Courtesy of ReConnect Rondo

Reconnect Rondo secured a small amount of federal funding for its proposal earlier this year. In March, it received $1.5 million to build a Net Zero Demonstration House, a carbon neutral building meant to showcase the type of construction that could take place on the land bridge. The state Legislature has dedicated $6.2 million to help plan the project, which has an estimated total cost of $458 million. 

Which way to environmental justice?

The Our Streets Minneapolis proposal calls for the state to follow examples set in cities like Detroit, where a highway that tore through Black neighborhoods is being replaced by a street level boulevard. 

The group has spent months planning and engaging people living along the interstate about its “Twin Cities Boulevard” proposal, said Our Streets Advocacy Director José Antonio Zayas Cabán. The plan would leave room for housing and commercial development alongside a mixed-use roadway.

“Folks have no idea that there’s another option other than living with the highway,” he said. 

A rendering of what today’s Interstate 94 could look like under a boulevard conversion, according to Our Streets Minneapolis. Credit: submitted image

That idea resonated with many people who the group spoke to, he said. And it has the backing of a number of local elected officials such as Conley, Minneapolis City Councilmember Robin Wonsley, and State Senator Omar Fateh.   

Our Streets argues that the Rondo land bridge project would leave the interstate intact, which means continued pollution for nearby residents while leaving current conditions in place for other neighborhoods. 

“Why not support a solution that would have a positive impact on all the communities,” Zayas Cabán said.  

A coalition of land bridge supporters wrote an open letter to Our Streets asking the organization to promote its own plans without putting down Reconnect Rondo. 

“We do not accept that the Our Streets concept is in Rondo’s best long-term interest,” wrote supporters of the land bridge. “While we do embrace state, county, and city climate change goals, we do not accept that your proposal is what is best to actualize them for African Americans or St. Paul residents and businesses.”

Reconnect Rondo is confident that its proposal can revitalize Rondo by creating an African American Cultural Enterprise District in St. Paul and feels supported by thousands of community members the group has spoken to, Baker said.

Conley said she supports both proposals and believes they can function together. She wants to see action that repairs communities harmed by highway construction. 

A long process

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is still more than a year away from making any decisions about how the urban interstate will be redesigned. State officials presented their own ideas for the project. One state proposal involved replacing the interstate with a slower street-level, six-lane highway, and another involved keeping the interstate as it is with minor safety and exit adjustments. 

The state is still in the process of finalizing its “purpose and needs” statement for the project. Currently, the statement prioritizes safety, infrastructure condition, and improved walking and biking ability in the area. Through community engagement, planners added “livability” as a top priority for consideration, the project’s lead engineer Sheila Kauppi said at the September meeting. 

The transportation department will start “testing” ideas over the next six months looking at dedicated mass transit lanes and bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the area, engineer Mike* Barnes said. State officials said they will also examine whether replacing the interstate with a street-level roadway is possible.

The state is working with the Federal Highway Administration. In 2023, the state transportation department will publish official options for the project, which will be followed by federal environmental impact statements. Construction would likely break ground in 2027. 

A public meeting studying mass transit options for Rethinking I-94 is scheduled for October 11 at 9 a.m. The state is hosting an open house to receive public input on October 12 at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul. The public can track the project online

*Correction: The original version of this story used the wrong first name for MnDOT engineer Mike Barnes.

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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...