Prominent among efforts to revitalize St. Paul's freeway-bisected Rondo neighborhood is the idea of placing a half-mile long lid over the freeway at Victoria Street, thereby creating a 20-acre linear park with complimentary residential and commercial development atop and astride the capped freeway ("How to connect and heal St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood," editorial, Feb. 17).
Caps of this sort have worked elsewhere, and would no doubt work here. But you wonder what would be possible if Interstate 94 were removed, not just hidden, and 70 developable acres between Western Avenue and Hamline Avenue were repatriated to a Rondo community given short shrift by the tone-deaf highway planning practices of yesteryear.
The freeway, it turns out, could indeed be removed, and in a way that would preserve community mobility and housing options without materially disadvantaging other I-94 stakeholders. We simply would reroute the freeway to the south by adding just two more lanes to I-35E between Kellogg Boulevard and West Jefferson Avenue and then would convert the current Ayd Mill Road (AMR) corridor to as few as four freeway lanes between Jefferson and I-94 at Prior Avenue.
In essence, we would replace 20 current I-94 lane miles with 15 lane miles over a slightly longer route to free up 70 Rondo acres for community restoration.
This could work because rush hour traffic, as highway planners once knew it, is not coming back; not with telecommuting, decentralized workplaces, staggered work hours and reverse commutes all cutting peak hour volumes by 20% or more.
Add to that the geographic luck of I-35E rush hour traffic moving in opposite directions toward each downtown, plus local Rondo freeway traffic diverting to restored, traffic-calmed neighborhood parkways, and you end up with just half the I-94 traffic running under Victoria Street in 2019 moving to the 35E/AMR bypass in 2025.
This wouldn't come cheap or easily. But perhaps more easily than once thought. For example, removing the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks from the AMR corridor, a decadeslong civic dream, is vital to this project. It has always been doable by channeling trains to nearby routes, but the railroads have resisted and public pushback has been ineffective. That should change, as the Biden administration, flush with stimulus resources and committed to equity and infrastructure initiatives, could find an opportunity here to use its clout more forcefully than past administrations have to bring recalcitrant stakeholders around.
Other locales are taking note, preparing funding requests and calling their senators. Why don't we?
Other challenges include: re-contouring the Rondo "ditch" left by I-94 to foster effective parkway, transitway and housing options; I-35E/AMR right-of-way acquisition; and the mitigation of environmental impacts from rerouted traffic.
The first of these is a community matter, while the right-of-way issues are manageable, thanks to wide existing corridors and the need for only 15 additional lane miles. That means just a few acres along I-35E and about seven acres along the Canadian Pacific Rail corridor west of Selby Avenue will be needed. Few, if any, homes would be taken from trendy Union Park while hundreds would be added to housing-short Rondo.
As for the I-35E/AMR environment, mitigation measures abound. For starters, the smaller, quieter and cleaner electric cars on the "new" I-94 will be a future-world upgrade from the toxic gas guzzlers plying Rondo today. And the trails made possible will be safer and much longer with the tracks gone, enabling one Midtown Greenway extension to, and through, Rondo via Allianz Field and another to West 7th Street alongside a walled-off AMR.
And finally, that annoying Ayd Mill cut-through, traffic-clogging Snelling-Selby environs would be history, making the "new" I-94 a much better neighbor to Mac-Groveland than "old" I-94 ever was. Why not go big to make this happen and allow our Rondo neighbors to truly reclaim their home?
Jerome Johnson is a retired transportation economist living in St. Paul.