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As officials weigh the future of Interstate 94 through the Twin Cities, some are pushing to replace it altogether.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Rethinking I-94 project spans the portion of the interstate between Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis and Marion Street in St. Paul.

The project ultimately aims to remedy some of the damages caused to neighborhoods in the Twin Cities with the construction of the interstate, particularly in diverse and working class areas, according to MnDOT.

The construction of I-94 in the 1950s and 1960s ran through these neighborhoods and required the demolition of homes, schools and businesses.

This includes the historic Rondo neighborhood, which was home to 85% of the city's Black population at the time, according to Saint Paul Historical Society.

The impact of the construction can still be seen, according to the University of Minnesota. This includes air quality issues, congestion and noise pollution, which negatively impact businesses and resident quality of life.

As the interstate ages, much of it will have to be reconstructed in coming years, which MnDOT has cited as an opportunity to improve these issues. 

While it acknowledges it does not yet a comprehensive list of options, the main two "initial concepts" that came out of the first phase of MnDOT's project involves keeping the interstate pretty much as it is, but with some lane improvements designed to reduce congestion, as well as adding more connectivity for pedestrians and bikers.

This in turn has led to a response by community members in the Twin Cities who feel that now is the time for more significant changes that would reconnect the communities on either side of the interstate. 

Proposal for 'Twin Cities Boulevard'

I-94

Local nonprofit Our Streets Minneapolis is a proponent of what it calls the “Twin Cities Boulevard.”

The proposal would eliminate the interstate altogether in favor of a “multi-modal boulevard.”

“The path toward true reparative justice is to remove the freeway, reconstruct a community-centered boulevard and return land to surrounding communities, including Rondo."

"I-94 was built to expand and enrich wealthy suburbs. It was never meant for the neighborhoods along the corridor or the people who call them home."

Our Streets Minneapolis' plan would see the trench that currently houses I-94 filled in, connecting the communities on either side and creating a boulevard that would put a greater focus on public transit service, provide protective bike "highways," and tree-shaded sidewalks with plenty of crosswalks.

This, it says, would give neighborhoods "walkable access to new local businesses and neighborhood amenities."

As for vehicle drivers, they would still be able to use the boulevard, but there would be fewer lanes and the boulevard would be set up for "short, local trips," which Our Streets Minneapolis contends make up the majority of trips taken on the I-94 stretch between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The majority of pass-through traffic would instead be sent via I-494 or I-694, which Our Streets says should be redesignated as the "main interstate," allowing those traveling to Chicago or Fargo to more easily travel "around" the Twin Cities.

"There are also plenty of other high-speed driving options between Minneapolis and Saint Paul," it adds. "In addition to I-494 and I-694, Highway 36 and Highway 62 add less than 5 minutes of driving time to the trip."

"The Twin Cities Boulevard will do a better job of serving this local traffic," it argues. "While it may add a few minutes, driving times will likely be more reliable because crashes, construction and suburban commuting will be reduced."

MnDOT looking into land 'lids'

One of the possible routes MnDOT is looking at is land bridges, or "lids." The lids would stretch over parts of the project corridor, including the Rondo neighborhood.

In 2016, the U of M’s Center of Transportation Studies partnered with MnDOT to explore the potential impacts of these lids, which found they could support increased green spaces in the area and provide more space for commercial development. The lids would also reconnect neighborhoods like Rondo that were cut in two with I-94’s development.

As part of its first phase, the Rethinking I-94 project did seek community feedback on the possibility of adding the lids at different points along the corridor.

This is backed by Reconnect Rondo, which says the lids would provide more opportunities for new housing and businesses, as well as improve quality of life for residents.

Reconnect Rondo has also led its own efforts to build the lid outside of the Rethinking I-94 project.

The organization testified at a state Legislature meeting last session to advocate for $6 million in funding the project's predesign phase. 

But the lid proposal has been criticized by Our Streets Minneapolis, saying it "leaves many of the existing harms in place and addresses only three or four blocks of the 7.5 mile corridor."

The next stage for the Rethinking I-94 project will come in late 2022, when MnDOT seeks public engagement and begins drafting a decision document. 

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