Minneapolis-St. Paul: Ripe for a Highway Teardown?

When I was a college student in the Twin Cities, I moved between Minneapolis and St. Paul on the 21 bus or the 16 bus or by bike, traversing vibrant corridors like Lake Street and Washington Avenue. I rode past art cinemas and pancake houses and Mexican supermarkets and puppet theaters. Or I didn’t ride past — I stopped and sampled.

The things you miss when you take I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Photo: ##http://www.stenseth.org/adventure/lakestreet.html##Stenseth##

I returned to the Twin Cities last month for my college reunion. Though I was excited to test out the new bike-share system, I was traveling with my family and, bowing to the pressure of convenience and time savings, we rented a car. Every day, sometimes several times, we traveled up and down I-94 and sometimes I-35. No arthouses or supermercados on this route. I missed showing my family some of my favorite parts of the city, because we sped past them.

Some in Minneapolis are now re-considering whether it really serves the cities well to make these freeways the easiest and fastest way to get around. On Tuesday, Marlys Harris — a Twin Cities reporter with a master’s degree in urban planning — speculated in MinnPost that maybe it was time to tear down those freeways, as other cities are beginning to do with their urban thoroughfares.

“Nobody is saying that we should do away with the entire interstate highway system,” Harris wrote. “But freeways cutting through downtowns?… Even Eisenhower, the progenitor of the modern interstate system, was shocked when he learned that freeway construction in Washington, D.C., had him halted in a traffic jam. He thought the highways were to be built between cities not in them.”

Harris acknowledges that the idea of a teardown may sound like “heresy” in the Twin Cities, where they’ve just spent millions rebuilding some of their major highways. But, she said, these roads “rip apart neighborhoods, produce tons of pollution and noise and take land off the property tax rolls, forcing everybody else to pay more.” Plus, they induce more demand for driving, leading to sprawl and even more congestion — a pretty raw deal for the cities.

Harris admits that nobody she called in either city “knew of any plans to demolish freeways — or pieces of them.” Even John Norquist, former Milwaukee mayor and current head of the Congress for the New Urbanism, said, in Harris’ words, that “getting rid of a highway connecting two cities and sitting in a major trench would be near impossible.” But Harris gets this right: “Given the cost of shoring them up, however, maybe someone should start thinking about it.”

Is this the most inspired use for wide swaths of these vibrant cities? Photo: ##http://blogs.mprnews.org/statewide/2010/07/stuck_on_i-94_billboard_taps_into_drivers_frustration/##MPR##

And it sounds like people are beginning to think about it. Within two days of the publication of her story in MinnPost, Harris was invited to appear on Minnesota Public Radio — along with John Norquist — to spread the gospel. They agreed that even if the cities aren’t ready to rip out I-94 and I-35, they can at least shorten some of the unnecessarily long exit ramps and redevelop that land.

The gold standard, though, is a city without freeways, Norquist said. He points to Vancouver, B.C., “which has had the best real estate market of any metropolitan area in North America over the last 20 years,” he said. “They have no freeways, none. And it works fine. The traffic distributes very efficiently over the street grid, and it doesn’t create the situation where you have these long travel-sheds” like in the Twin Cities.

If any U.S. city can do it, it should be Minneapolis-St. Paul. Minneapolis has the second-highest bicycle-commuting rate in the nation, despite its unforgiving winters; ridership on the new light rail system is exceeding expectations; and they’re doubling down on transit-oriented development to build on previous successes. With so much innovative thinking around transportation and land use, the Twin Cities could show the country how forward-thinking it really is by taking the next step and getting rid of the dinosaur freeways scarring its vibrant urban centers.

  • Anonymous

    So…your rental car was unable to drive down Lake Street? It sounds like you chose to not show your family the art houses and supermercados, which would not be I-94’s fault.

  • False Dichotomy

    Did I miss some part where people feel using the interstate is mandatory and not optional?

    Ah, I, too, sometimes miss the “good ol’ days”, and sometimes I don’t.

  • Matthew Hallacy

    This is foolish. Those “unnecessarily long exit ramps” are called acceleration lanes, they exist so that you can match the speed of traffic before merging.

    Vancouver has numerous roads which we would consider a highway in the US, as well as the Canadian equivalent of an Interstate highway (The Trans Canadian *HIGHWAY*).

    I understand you’re a very anti-car, pro-bicycle person but at least look at a map before writing your articles so that your readers can have a reasoned discussion rather than more yellow journalism.

  • Alex

    You should also look at a map, or at least click through to the source articles. If you did you’d know that the unnecessarily long exit ramps referred to are not for acceleration, but rather to save downtown commuters a minute or two. If you did look at a map of Minneapolis, you’d see two viaducts cutting through a half-mile swath of rapidly redeveloping industrial neighborhoods just northwest of downtown; these are the ramps in question. But then I understand you’re a very pro-car, anti-bicycle person, so I suppose you’d see nothing wrong with them.

  • Nathanael

    The interstates through downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul wrecked the urban fabric.

    Now, given what’s been built, I think you would not want to tear down all the expressways in the Twin Cities. 35W heading south from the city is an artery for long-distance traffic, as is 94 heading NW and 35 heading north.

    But there are definitely too many expressways — there’s a lot of redundancy in the expressways, and the maze of downtown exits are a complete mess. There are now three layers of beltways on the west side, and a minimum of one all the way around.

    I’d suggest a teardown of the expressway sections running through both of the downtowns. Move the through traffic to the beltways, and have the expressways to downtown empty out onto city streets before reaching downtown. It would allow for a street grid to be re-established.

  • Fbfree

    While the TCH does enter Vancouver city limits, it only just enters them in order to provide a through route. Two other highways stop at city limits (Oak street and Knight street bridges). Vancouver does have some vestigial freeway stubs (the Georgia viaduct and the Granville St. Bridge).

    Several arterials in Vancouver have higher traffic than those in similar sized cities in the US (Granview Hwy, Knight St, 1st Ave and more), but these arterials are much less disruptive to the fabric of the city than freeways.

  • Matthew Hallacy

    Feel free to actually name the exits you’re referring to, I spend a lot of time in the Twin Cities and I’m very familiar with the highway system.

    As for pro-whatever, I use whatever makes the most sense. Some days that’s the light rail, some days it’s a bicycle, some days it’s a car. Whatever gets me where I’m going.

  • Alex

    The 4th St viaduct from 3rd & 4th Sts downtown to I-94 northbound is the one most often mentioned. But I realize now that Marlys’ column doesn’t explicitly mention it, just links to Bill Lindeke’s streets.mn post that does.

  • False Dichotomy

    Not sure what to tell you dude… But then again, I am but a suburbanite/small-town transplant who tends to avoid the inner city/downtown areas in general, yet in the past have enjoyed several aspects of the inner cities, save for the getting there and back.

    I just don’t foresee any sort of major, large-scale reworking of the highway and freeway system, especially when it seems that maintaining the existing system is a monstrous job and headache to begin with…

  • Eric

    As a life long Minneapolis and Saint Paul resident you have no clue what you are talking about. Perhaps because you have WMATA you have some alternatives and many people go into downtown to work you think this way but here we have people cris-crossing the entire Metro area to get to work or go places.

    All you had to do is get off the freeway and you could have driven past all of those places you wished to but your ignorance must be bliss to you. We still have all our local streets here in case you didn’t know it.

    Most of the day the freeways in the Twin-cites flow fairly well but rush hour is rush hour everywhere. Even in DC. (been there)

    However, I will say the Highways everywhere are all undersized and outdated in most cities and states because we are still using the ones that were created 50 years ago. Instead of tearing them down we need to add more mass transit options, add more lanes to many freeways, add more highways and push virtual office options.

    A simple expansion of many routes would reduce congestion, reduce pollution and provide people with more free-time instead of needing to sit in traffic just to get to and from work. Most people cannot choose to work where they want and the jobs are not necessarily where they live anymore. Picking up and moving is not always an option since both spouses usually work.
    As far as long ramps go – they are for de-acceleration and acceleration as well as allowing traffic to get on and off the freeway during rush hour without blocking the freeway and creating more backups. But then for someone with limited experience driving highways this is something you would not know.

    Try getting to work without your Metro and see what your options are in DC… Then come back and tell me how you would get around without your freeways. I have been to DC and I do know you need your highways there.

  • Anonymous

    “especially when it seems that just maintaining the existing system is a monstrous job and headache to begin with…”

    Well, that’s WHY you tear it down. The most expensive part to maintain are these inner-city sections, which require lots of narrow, stacked bridges.

  • False Dichotomy

    Interesting points–10-day-old article notwithstanding 🙂

    Still, this sounds like a pretty major reconstruction; I’m trying to imagine how that would cost less than maintaining the existing system in the long run even. But hey, that’s certainly not my area of expertise. It sounds like the residents of Minneapolis/Saint Paul proper would need to discuss this further, for starters.

    For now, I’ll personally be thrilled when we can cross the 694 Mississippi River bridge again without 2-mile traffic backups…


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