Fill in the I-94 trench? Add more lanes? Here are the options the state is studying for I-94 between St. Paul & Minneapolis

18 July 2023

State transportation planners will explore rebuilding Interstate 94 at street level between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, filling in much of the trench where the freeway currently runs and creating new at-grade pedestrian crossings and bus lanes.

But on another extreme, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said Monday that planners will also study widening and adding lanes to the freeway — an option that alarmed St. Paul city officials who oppose the idea, and activists who wanted to see more fleshed-out plans for redeveloping I-94 as a boulevard.

These were two of 10 “alternatives” that officials deemed workable enough to advance to the next phase of MnDOT’s long-running “Rethinking I-94” master-planning process, which the agency intends to shape reconstruction projects along the freeway for decades to come.

Also among the options MnDOT will study: building new bus transit infrastructure along I-94 and expanding local frontage roads to carry more trips.

MnDOT leaders stressed the agency hasn’t endorsed any of these alternatives. They haven’t ruled out a plan that would basically maintain the freeway in its current configuration. They may even add new alternatives to the mix by summer 2024, after which planners will begin putting all of the options through environmental impact studies, according to agency spokesman Ricardo Lopez.

“There are many things we still need to work through,” MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger said Monday, “but we’ve identified a range of roadway alternatives and transit ideas that could work when paired together.”

But planners did definitively reject other ideas for the future of I-94. For instance, planners said Monday they will no longer study adding a light-rail, subway or commuter rail line in the corridor — even if the freeway were ultimately replaced by a surface street. Planners estimated the new line wouldn’t generate enough ridership.

So what might I-94 look like in the future? Here’s a sampling of the ideas MnDOT floated:

‘At-grade’ roadway

Though I-94 currently carries 150,000 trips per day between the two downtowns, the “Rethinking” process has stirred the imaginations of activists who hope the Twin Cities will join a list of other metropolises that have torn out or built lids over freeways to make way for more pedestrian-, transit- and bike-friendly public spaces.

Others have argued that removing I-94 altogether would be impractical, fearing that drivers would clog local roads or other metro area freeways.

At a meeting of Rethinking I-94’s advisory committee, MnDOT planners presented this draft concept for what the corridor could look like without the current freeway (along with another that ran bus lanes down the center):


The advocacy group Our Streets Minneapolis, which has championed the freeway-removal option, said in a statement on its website that activists were “encouraged that MnDOT included a boulevard option.”

That said, the plans didn’t exactly excite the passions of the pro-boulevard crowd. Our Streets advocates worried MnDOT’s “at-grade” option lacked specifics about green space, the width of the rebuilt roadway or plans to convert parts of the corridor into new housing or businesses.

“‘At-grade’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘walkable’ or ‘transit-friendly,’” said Celeste Robinson, an aide to Minneapolis City Council member Robin Wonsley. “When residents are advocating for ‘highway removal,’ they’re advocating for an at-grade boulevard, not filling it in with dirt or replacing it with nothing.”

“I think the best idea is an at-grade roadway that is more of a boulevard conversion,” added Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, who called for MnDOT to bring in an outside expert in boulevard conversions to advise their planning.

There’s also tension between the freeway-removal proposal and an even older idea.

I-94’s construction in the 1960s tore through St. Paul’s historically-Black Rondo neighborhood. For the past decade, many Rondo residents have gravitated to a proposal to build a land bridge over I-94 — a project they feel could not only re-link, but revitalize the old neighborhood. Some activists have argued the idea is short-sighted, and that removing I-94 altogether would have a greater benefit.

In March, the nonprofit ReConnect Rondo received a $2 million federal grant to fund a new study of their land bridge idea. On Monday, MnDOT officials pledged to factor ReConnect Rondo’s findings into their decision-making process.

Dedicated carpool or bus lanes

Another set of alternatives MnDOT will study going forward involves using “managed lanes”: dedicating lanes in either direction of I-94 for buses or E-Z Pass carpool vehicles.


How, precisely, those transit or carpool lanes would be configured is another layer that planners will be studying.

Officials with MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council (which is helping to evaluate various transit options) said that their initial analysis found that adding express buses in “managed” lanes would result in the fastest transit times. The same scheme, but with one stop built in the middle of the freeway at Snelling Avenue, would be almost as fast.

Adding a total of three new bus stops — at 25th and 27th avenues in Minneapolis and Dale Street in St. Paul, in addition to Snelling — would provide the greatest possible accessibility to transit without slowing travel times too much, the analysis found.

Wider frontage roads, narrower freeway

Another proposed option would narrow I-94, with buses traveling on the shoulder, while also widening frontage roads along the north and south sides of the freeway:


The City of St. Paul’s top climate and sustainability official, Russ Stark, offered encouraging remarks about this proposal — though he also noted that other alternatives should also provide for expanded bicycle and pedestrian facilities on frontage roads.

“We’d like to change the nature of those frontage roads,” Stark said, “to be a lot more like they’re part of the neighborhood and less like they’re part of a freeway system.”

Expanded freeway

But city officials were puzzled by the inclusion of two proposals that would significantly widen I-94, adding at least one “managed” lane throughout the corridor. Here’s one of the options:


St. Paul City Council member Mitra Jalali said that both Mayor Melvin Carter and the council would likely oppose any expansion of the freeway, “even if it’s expanding for transit.”

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

MnDOT officials answered that the idea was included because the planning process is still in the early stages: “We’re looking at the universe of alternatives,” project manager Melissa Barnes said.

Daubenberger stressed that these concepts, while illustrative, are not very detailed, and cover fairly basic elements — roadway type, the number of lanes, and potential locations for transit stops.

Eventually, planners will take up more detailed questions, such as how intersections would be constructed, what types of trees and landscaping might be included, or whether noise walls should be built, Daubenberger said.

“We don’t have all the answers today,” she said.

Need help?

If you need support, please send an email to [email protected]

Thank you.