The Star Tribune's "Curious Minnesota" article on Interstate 35E in St. Paul (metro, Feb. 12) presents a good summary of the development of that part of our interstate highway system. But in its brevity there are significant omissions. The characterization of the 45 mile-per-hour speed limit by the gentleman who was a researcher for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is disrespectful and cynical.
Timing is everything. The actual construction of this stretch of freeway came along after the completion of I-35W in Minneapolis and I-94 in St. Paul. People had seen the damage that those highways were doing to our cities.
In St. Paul, the Rondo neighborhood was destroyed, and people in Merriam Park were increasingly concerned that their success in having 94 constructed "below grade" was too little, too late. It was apparent that highway planners were either ignorant of the negative impact of such massive facilities, or indifferent.
Fortuitously, as the work on 35E began in St. Paul, the federal Environmental Protection Act became law and the 35E project was subject to it. Residents in Protest (RIP) 35E secured the assistance of environmental lawyers Chuck Dayton and John Herman, who took the matter to court.
The court found that the construction could not go forward without at least an environmental impact study, and the project was stopped.
This, of course, was very controversial, but it was not trivial. RIP 35E was not just a few people stirring up trouble, and the political leaders who weighed in were not simply trying to curry favor with their constituents.
This effort went far beyond St. Paul. There were similar efforts throughout the country (although these challenges seldom succeeded) and in Minnesota, the political coalition that insisted on a closer look at the damage wrought by urban freeways included St. Paul, Golden Valley, St. Louis Park and Minneapolis.
In Minneapolis, where 94 later destroyed much of north Minneapolis, the effort led to the permanent cancellation of the planned interstate link from 35W through Northeast to 94. Within St. Paul, the West Seventh, Crocus Hill, Ramsey Hill, Lexington-Hamline and Merriam Park neighborhoods were all solidly opposed to freeway projects that were poised to destroy neighborhoods and quality of life. The environmental damage includes air pollution, noise pollution and visual pollution.
Transportation is vital, but so is the right to be protected from these destructive phenomena. After all, 35E was planned to pass within feet of at least six legally recognized "sensitive receptors," i.e., two elementary schools and their playgrounds; one high school and its athletic fields; one city park with ball fields and tennis courts; and two hospitals. Planning guidance indicated that freeways should avoid all of these types of facilities, not to mention the many neighborhoods and thousands of family homes.
These were huge problems, and political leaders saw it as their role and duty to facilitate solutions to these problems.
The environmental law requires an assessment of environmental threats; it assumes that decisionmakers will choose the least damaging location and design; and whatever is built must be designed to mitigate unavoidable risks. The tools that were applied in this process included litigation, legislation and thorough research — scientific, social, historic, economic studies — and negotiation.
In the end RIP 35E engaged former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Sheran to represent its position, and the issues in the final litigation were whether the environmental impact had been properly assessed in comparison to other routes and whether the continuing risks in the "favored" route could be mitigated.
Ultimately, a number of significant design changes to mitigate the pollution risks were built into the freeway plans being considered by the federal court, and on that basis it ordered that the plans were in compliance with the environmental laws and that the project could go forward. This result included permanent features to protect against the damage that would have otherwise occurred.
First and foremost, heavy trucks were banned (mitigating noise, air and visual pollution), and second, to better assure this restriction the road surface was required to be thinner; that is, if the state later wanted to and if the courts allowed truck traffic, the entire road would have to be rebuilt to handle the heavier vehicles.
Third, to mitigate noise pollution, the surface had to be asphalt, which reduces tire noise. Fourth, the speed limit was set at 45 mph, which mitigates noise and air pollution.
Fifth, sound barrier walls were required throughout the route to mitigate noise and visual pollution. Sixth, special aesthetic design features were required in the form of attractive lighting and landscaping to mitigate visual pollution in the gateway to St. Paul.
Efforts like this are emotional; the process proved to be a little rough and in the end it took political courage to end the fight, but the result is a good result. Citizens seized the intended benefits of the environmental protection laws and political leaders served the public interest, in the end facilitating the improved design.
It was not simply a reduced speed limit tossed in as a compromise for political expediency.
John E. Diehl, of Lilydale, is an attorney. He was chairman of the RIP 35E environmental legal defense fund (1973-1982).