Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. This editorial was written on behalf of the board by Star Tribune Opinion intern Noor Adwan, a 2023 graduate of the University of Minnesota.


The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has unveiled 10 ideas for the Rethinking I-94 project, an ambitious endeavor to address a number of safety, equity and mobility issues with the nearly eight-mile stretch of the interstate that runs between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The alternatives released July 17, which are drafts at this stage, are wide-ranging, including proposals addressing freeway maintenance, expansion, and reduction or replacement with an at-grade roadway. Their development follows years of listening sessions and meetings with communities that live near and use the corridor.

"Two years we spent just listening: How do people use the corridor? What's important to you?" Sheila Kauppi, the deputy district engineer overseeing the project, told editorial writers.

In addition to addressing the interstate's aging infrastructure, MnDOT aims to improve safety, walkability, bikeability and motor vehicle mobility along the corridor. Officials also hope to rectify historical injustices: I-94's construction in the 1950s and '60s bisected various communities, including Rondo, a prosperous, vibrant and predominantly Black neighborhood. More than 600 families were displaced from Rondo, and around 300 businesses were demolished when construction began.

"The interstate separated communities," MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger told editorial writers. "We, back at the very beginning of this, apologized for the undue burdens that created [for] neighborhoods."

MnDOT's desire to rectify historical injustices is admirable, as has been the effort to engage with communities that would be affected. The department's aims to address mobility, safety and infrastructure along the corridor are similarly commendable, as improvements are much needed.

But fundamental questions have yet to be answered. First, what is the primary goal of the project? The many outlined aims of Rethinking I-94, though noble, often conflict with one another. Prioritizing mobility and expanding the interstate, for example, could conflict with attempts to repair damage to Rondo and other neighborhoods. Conversely, reducing lane space to make good with these communities could conflict with mobility goals by increasing congestion.

Second, who is the project meant to serve? The vast majority of those who use the interstate do not live in the communities that surround it, and commensurate attention should be given to this constituency. If MnDOT pursues a costly, taxpayer-funded alternative that ultimately increases commute times, there will likely be massive public outcry. (While the total cost of the project has yet to be determined, funding will come from both federal and state sources.)

It is also worth asking whether all the project's aims would be best addressed by infrastructure changes. If a primary goal of Rethinking I-94 is rectifying historical injustice, is a freeway redesign the best way to achieve that?

The project's potential Achilles' heel is the prohibitively broad scope of its goals, which is likely to make successful compromise difficult or impossible. This breadth is reflected in an equally broad range of proposed alternatives; some are complete opposites of others. Two of the 10 options relate to freeway expansion, while a handful of others would reduce lane space. MnDOT did acknowledge the need for trade-offs during the presentation of the alternatives, but it is an issue that will likely require more attention.

The communities that use and live near the corridor may benefit from a more tailored approach. For example, if MnDOT were to embark on a pair of projects — one related to improving freeway mobility and safety and another related to repairing harm to neighboring communities — it may be more likely to achieve an end that leaves most parties satisfied. But attempting to realize a number of conflicting goals, all within one freeway redesign, is likely to lead to nothing more than a tepid compromise.

Rethinking I-94 is well-intentioned, and it is clear change is needed in the corridor. But the project is too ambitious in its current state. It would be beneficial for MnDOT to consider pursuing a number of tailored projects, rather than attempting to address both present-day commuter woes and decades-old injustices within one freeway project.