Most motorists driving on Interstate 394 probably fail to notice the acre-long slash of weedy roadside where the highway ends abruptly at Washington Avenue N. in Minneapolis’ hip North Loop neighborhood.

But members of the North Loop Neighborhood Association were keenly aware of the lamentable right-of-way at the busy intersection. The overgrowth, shrubby thicket, errant trash, and doggy detritus weren’t the least bit welcoming, and the whole area was in dire need of a makeover.

“It was not nice,” said Mark Huting, a North Loop resident and association board member.

More than a year ago, the association took advantage of a little-known program offered by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) that provides financial and technical assistance to communities interested in landscaping the department’s right of way.

As it turned out, the North Loop patch was indeed owned by MnDOT. So the neighborhood association successfully applied for $15,000 in funding from its Community Roadside Landscape Partnership Program to pay for trees, shrubs, mulch and compost. This supplemented about $6,500 the group raised on its own, which was used to clear the turf and prepare the soil for new vegetation.

Then, last Saturday, as temperatures hovered at a steamy 90 degrees, about 20 neighborhood volunteers donned bright yellow vests and started planting 14 trees and 100 shrubs. After three hours of sweaty work, a verdant new space was formed — and in an area of town not known for its green space.

“It’s moments like this that really move me,” said Tim Bildsoe, president of the North Loop Neighborhood Association. “It was a real neighborhood effort.”

About 400 projects have received funding from MnDOT’s roadside program over the past three decades in projects worth more than $7 million of roadside landscaping improvements. This year, $100,000 was budgeted for landscaping partnerships in the Twin Cities metro area, and about $210,000 was allocated for greater Minnesota.

The state will help design the projects if needed. And cities or communities serve as partners with applicants.

MnDOT benefits because volunteers donate their labor to plant and maintain the plots. “The folks in the community are the local spark plugs that make it happen,” said David Larson, principal landscape architect in MnDOT’s Office of Environmental Stewardship.

The department estimates an annual “cost savings/avoidance” of nearly $1.75 million for work that would have been necessary to maintain the plantings on these projects. Larson said if a contractor had been hired to do the work, MnDOT “would have paid three or four times as much.”

It is true that some of the projects go fallow because volunteers fail to maintain them. But, Larson noted, “that’s not the norm.”

The North Loop neighbors are already planning a second phase that involves a “welcome monument” with a public gathering area near the intersection. “We want to be urban,” Bildsoe said. “But we want to have trees, too.”