Olson Memorial Highway, also known as Highway 55, looking eastward with downtown Minneapolis in the background on July 27, 2023. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is launching a project to reconstruct Olson Memorial Highway that community groups say is an opportunity to create a safer and more vibrant corridor in north Minneapolis. 

MnDOT tentatively plans to reconstruct Olson Memorial Highway, or Highway 55, in 2028 between Border Avenue and Thomas Avenue, from downtown Minneapolis to the edge of Theodore Wirth Regional Park. The six- to eight-lane highway that connects Minneapolis to the northwest suburbs is a safety concern due to frequent crashes. 

The highway was built in the early 1940s, and replaced 6th Avenue North, which was a cultural hub of early Black life on the near North Side. Many homes and businesses in the then-Black and Jewish communities were destroyed to make way for the highway, which was replicated by the construction of Interstates 35W and 94 in the 1960s. 

Today, the highway cuts through the Harrison Neighborhood. The area is diverse; 80 percent of nearby residents are people of color, according to state data. The surrounding area is home to residents who are disproportionately younger and have lower incomes than other parts of Minneapolis. 

The 55411 zip code along the highway also has some of the highest asthma rates in the state. The highway crosses over Interstate 94 just outside of downtown Minneapolis, and is accessible from the interstate via exit and entrance ramps.

MnDOT is soliciting community ideas to shape design alternatives for the project, which is in its early stages. Proposed designs will be released this fall. 

“We want to hear from everyone, but in particular we want to hear from people who live in the area,” said Jesse Johnson, project spokesperson for MnDOT. 

Residents can fill out a survey by August 1 to share their thoughts. The survey is available in English, Hmong, Karen, Somali, and Spanish. 

Safety first 

Residents attending a July 24 open house about the project in the basement of Sumner Library, one of the only historic buildings to survive the highway’s construction, said they want to see safety improvements. 

MissCandi Martin, a librarian, said she wants a safer street that is easier to cross on foot. She recalled watching a child and elderly man attempting to cross the highway to reach the library. They struggled, and needed help from passersby to make it across, she said. 

She knows many drivers use the highway, but sees the need for a lane reduction or other improvements to help pedestrians. 

Hibo Haid, a North Side resident who attended the meeting with her young daughter, knows people who have been involved in vehicle crashes on Olson Memorial Highway, and said in particular that its intersection with Interstate 94 is an issue. 

“I feel like there’s changes that need to be made,” Hibo said. 

Olson Memorial Highway, also known as Highway 55, in Minneapolis on July 27, 2023. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Hibo is correct, according to state and city safety data. Olson Memorial Highway is one of the most dangerous streets in Minneapolis, according to a 2022 study by the city. The roadway is considered a “high injury street” by city public works. 

The city’s 2018 crash study identified the intersection of Olson Memorial Highway and Interstate 94 as the site of the most car crashes in Minneapolis. 

There were 39 crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists in the project area in the past decade; 13 were fatal or resulted in severe injury, according to MnDOT. There were 949 total crashes resulting in 377 injuries and 10 deaths along the highway in the last 10 years. 

“We know crashes are a problem,” said project manager Mike Samuelson. 

The highway has a speed limit of 40 miles an hour, but 85 percent of cars travel up to 50 miles an hour, MnDOT data show. That increases safety risks, as crashes are deadlier at higher speeds. 

While the highway was built to help suburban commuters reach downtown Minneapolis, its use has largely shifted. The construction of Interstate 394 in the 1990s redirected west metro traffic into downtown. 

Olson Memorial Highway averages 15,000 vehicles per day, fewer than many city and county roads in Minneapolis. Most trips on the road today are local and shorter than two miles, according to MnDOT. 

Community vision

Local organizations have pressured the state to take bold actions to address the harms caused by building Olson Memorial Highway, and to institute changes to create a vibrant, neighborhood street. 

The Harrison Neighborhood Association and Our Streets Minneapolis, a pedestrian and bike advocacy group, launched the “Bring Back 6th” campaign in 2021. Their vision imagines a boulevard space with dedicated transit and bicycle lanes, better pedestrian infrastructure, and fewer car lanes. 

They also want to use the wide roadway to build public housing and community-owned commercial spaces. 

“This project really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Alex Burns, advocacy and policy manager for Our Streets. 

Olson Memorial Highway, also known as Highway 55, in Minneapolis on July 27, 2023. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

The groups have done extensive outreach in the community to get feedback on their vision, and say residents have responded favorably. Our Streets said they have knocked on 20,000 doors near the project area. Many want to see big, broad changes made, according to Raquel Sidie-Wagner, community engagement specialist with Our Streets.

“Folks feel that the North Side deserves more investment from the city and the state,” she said. 

The Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a resolution in May calling for MnDOT to embrace the Bring Back 6th campaign’s proposal. 

Short term improvements 

MnDOT has experimented with temporary safety improvements along the project area. Traffic cones were installed on the highway to block off a lane in each direction over the summer of 2022, an effort that is being replicated this year. 

The goal of that work is to make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street and reduce vehicle speeds, according to MnDOT. 

MnDOT will resurface part of  the project area this year to make those changes more visible, according to a letter that MnDOT west area manager Mark Lindeberg sent to advocates for safety improvements. 

Our Streets and Harrison Neighborhood Association are urging the state to use that resurfacing to implement more temporary improvements for pedestrians at all intersections. They also want the speed limit reduced to 25 mph and dedicated bus lanes. 

“We have some serious concerns that they’re not listening to the community, and not doing what they could,” Burns said. 

How to share your thoughts about redeveloping Olson Memorial Highway:
Residents can fill out a survey by August 1. The survey is available in English, Hmong, Karen, Somali, and Spanish.

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...