It's the primary connection between Minneapolis and St. Paul and it is long overdue for a makeover.
Interstate 94 between the two Twin Cities is undergoing a series of studies by the Minnesota Department of Transportation as they try to decide the best way forward with redesigning one of the state's busiest sections of road, a seven and a half mile stretch connecting the two downtowns.
"Rethinking I-94 is a long-term effort to engage with those who live, work, and play along the corridor between Minneapolis and St. Paul," says a MnDOT statement on the Rethinking I-94 website. "We’re doing this to understand the needs and hopes of people, so our work also builds and sustains healthy, equitable communities."
Melissa Barns is with MnDOT and she tells WCCO that nothing is final yet.
"We want people to tell us what they like, what they don't like, what might work with them in their daily lives, what they see is a big drawback of certain alternatives," explains Barns. "They're very high-level, we have time to change things right now so we're looking at what we're missing and what's really speaking to folks, with their community, their commutes, their business, the way they work, live and play in this area."
Rethinking I-94 was launched by MnDOT in 2016 so they've been studying and surveying this stretch of freeway for several years. The idea was to move beyond just the technical aspects of maintaining a roadway, and actually work with the community to design a better balance for moving traffic without wrecking the neighborhoods. The goal is to prevent the same issues original freeway construction caused in the 1950s and 1960s.
On Monday MnDOT released 10 alternatives for repairing or replacing that section of road which is at the point of overuse. Those 10 alternatives include options as simple as resurfacing the existing freeway, to a total redesign of the corridor expanding lanes and creating rapid transit opportunities.
The ideas presented by MnDOT fall into three categories: No maintenance which would simply leave the design as-is, Maintenance A which would leave the infrastructure but allow for more in-depth work, and Maintenance B which would replace the existing infrastructure to current standards with consistent shoulders, and allow for transit to run on the shoulders. Currently transit has to use the same lanes as general traffic and that would stay the same with no maintenance or Maintenance A options.
Much of the community surrounding the corridor is asking for MnDOT to change radically from the status quo, which is primarily what the 10 alternatives are proposing. There are two options inside that 10 that propose removing the freeway and putting in two lanes of traffic for all vehicles and one dedicated transit lane (for buses only) in both directions.
Of the 10 proposals, none of them mention the Reconnect Rondo, one of the primary ideas that have been floated for reconnecting neighborhoods that were destroyed by the original freeway designs despite community feedback asking for that to be considered.
Rondo is the historically important African American neighborhood broken up by I-94 during the 1956-1968 construction process. The organization Reconnect Rondo is hoping any redesign of 94 includes a "land bridge" over the freeway to reconnect the neighborhood and become an African American cultural enterprise district. They have already received federal funding to pursue the project.
Other neighborhood leaders have proposed slowing down that part of the freeway and make it a boulevard, which has seen positive feedback.
"The Twin Cities Boulevard is a growing community vision to replace this section of I-94 with a multi-modal boulevard, return the surrounding land to neighborhoods and fulfill calls for reparative justice along the corridor," they say on their website. "The Twin Cities Boulevard will create healthier air, much needed economic opportunity, and accessible, affordable, and sustainable transportation access to places all along the corridor."
They point to some other communities that have had success doing similar projects and removing freeway traffic from the core of cities.
Another group that supports the boulevard idea is Our Streets MPLS who released a statement after Monday's meeting saying they are encouraged MnDOT did include a boulevard option, but that they have "serious concerns about the proposed options and the criteria MnDOT is using to evaluate them."
Our Streets MPLS adds that the new ideas "continue a long history of racial targeting, class discrimination, and environmental destruction within the Department of Transportation and on this project corridor."
MnDOT has said the ideas are merely a starting point towards more discussion, and right now that is focused on basic elements like road design first. There is not a preferred design at this point and they hope to have a more secure plan and project costs by 2025. That would leave time to consider what the project should look like at the neighborhood level. The cost would be somewhere around $500 million.