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MnDOT receives criticism during Rethinking I-94 meeting

MnDOT unveiled alternatives to reimagine the freeway between Minneapolis and St. Paul, some of which faced backlash from leaders and residents.
Image by Graphic by Ava Weinreis
The interstate has received backlash since the 1960s for the communities it has displaced.

Twin Cities leaders and residents spoke in opposition to expanding Interstate 94 during the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) July 16 “Rethinking I-94” meeting.

During the meeting, MnDOT unveiled potential alternatives to the freeway running between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Members of the Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) and Twin Cities residents also gave their comments on the future of I-94.

Included in MnDOT’s alternatives were plans for how I-94 could be modified to improve movement and quality of life for those who live along the corridor.

Alternatives unveiled by MnDOT would see I-94 filled in to create a boulevard with space for buses, pedestrians and bikes sitting on the same level as the streets in surrounding neighborhoods.

Two alternatives that drew criticism from PAC members and residents detailed an expansion of I-94 that would add one new lane in each direction.

St. Paul City Council Member Mitra Jalali (Ward 4) spoke out against MnDOT’s proposed alternative.

“Why is expansion even on the table?” Jalali said. “If the goals and the project’s master vision is to have equity, climate and resiliency, freeway expansion is actually categorically in opposition to those things, and I’m trying to understand how it even got into the mix.”

Constructed in the 1960s, the freeway has faced backlash for displacing thousands of residents in areas like the Rondo neighborhood, a historically Black community in St. Paul.

Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley expressed disapproval of alternatives that would expand the freeway, adding many Cedar-Riverside residents supported a boulevard. 

“It should be removed immediately,” Conley said. “Especially when we have goals around climate and equity. We’re talking about the poisoning and pollution that comes with freeway expansion. That is quite opposite from the goals that we want here.”

Project manager Melissa Barnes responded to concerns over expansion, telling PAC members they were considering the “full universe of alternatives.”

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, an associate professor of sociology and demographer specializing in mortality at the University of Minnesota, said she lives in the shadow of I-94 and doesn’t think the daughter she’s raising should be breathing air polluted by freeways.

Wrigley-Field said she supports the alternatives that would convert the freeway to a boulevard and prioritize parks and spaces people can bike and walk in.

“I think we’ve really underestimated just how bad freeways are for people’s health,” she said.

Wrigley-Field said as researchers continue to study air pollution from freeways, the results keep showing it is worse than they imagined.

Asthma hospitalization rates along the Rethinking I-94 project corridor are nearly three times the state average, according to data from Our Streets Minneapolis.

In addition to pollution from exhaust fumes, Wrigley-Field said noise pollution and pollution caused by the friction of tires on the road are factors to consider when thinking about freeways.

According to Wrigley-Field, with a changing climate cities need to start planning for sustainability.

“What it meant for the Twin Cities to make this decision with all these other cities in the 1960s to put highways all over the place in the middle of areas where people live, was generations then living with these health effects,” Wrigley-Field said. “It’s really hopeful to me that now we have this moment where we actually could just undo that.”

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