What is the I-35W Access Project?

A $153 million plan to revamp I-35W access in south Minneapolis is now heading to city, county and state policymakers for review and approval.

Work could begin by late 2004, planners say.

Those who support the project argue it would provide needed access and revitalization for Lake Street, provide safer spacing between freeway ramps and provide other amenities like a new pedestrian bridge at 34th Street. Starting over would risk getting a worse deal, they say.

Critics say the project spends a lot of money for unknown benefits, fails to set serious transit goals and only paves the way for future freeway expansion. They fault a process they say was set up to get a predetermined result.

Hennepin County appointed a Project Advisory Committee (PAC) in 1999 to review and comment on the design. It had neighborhood, institutional and business representatives. In November, the PAC voted 16-3 to support the project.

City Councilmembers Robert Lilligren (8th ward), Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) and a representative for Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) either abstained or did not vote.

The main features of the I-35W Access Project include:

– Adding a new northbound I-35W entrance ramp at Lake Street.

– Adding a new southbound I-35W exit ramp to Lake Street.

– Redesigning the Lake Street Bridge and widening some of Lake Street for increased traffic.

– Building a "flyover bridge" — allowing northbound traffic on I-35W to bypass Lake Street and exit directly to East 28th Street, connecting to such institutions as Wells Fargo and Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

– Eliminating the access ramps now at 35th and 36th streets and moving them to 38th Street.

– Redesigning the current 5th Avenue ramp to I-35W and I-94.

The Access Project’s budget includes nearly $29 million to ease the impact of the changes on affected neighborhoods. A large chunk, $13 million, is for bridge enhancement and replacement.

Other mitigation includes new parking bays, lighting, streetscape improvements, new traffic signals, retaining walls and public art.

The current plan does not include any new freeway lanes — for now. At state insistence, the design accommodates future High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.

The plan requires purchasing the western half of the 2900 block on 2nd Avenue, said project manager Tom Johnson of Smith Parker. It would eliminate 16 housing units: eight single-family homes and two four-plexes.

More information on the I-35W plan is available online at www.phillipspartnership.org/

Infrastructure/infrastructure.html.

Some project critics, calling themselves STRIDE, have their own website at www.stride-mn.org/

Supporting the Access Project

By Scott Persons

As a member of the Project Advisory Committee representing Lyndale Neighborhood, I think it’s important to talk about why I support the Project and why I sincerely believe this project will be a regional benefit. It is by no means a perfect plan, but one whose benefits greatly outstrip its burdens.

Lake Street’s vitality

Lake Street is not currently an economically vital corridor; it is greatly improved from what it was five years ago but we still have a long way to go.

My test of vitality is one of safety: is Lake Street safe? Do you want to walk alone on Lake Street after dark? Not in its current configuration, and if we don’t change anything — or if we let the Minnesota Department of Transportation build whatever access they want at Lake Street — then I know it will continue to be an unsafe and therefore not vital corridor.

Without full north-south access to I-35W, Lake Street will continue to be a service-dominated corridor with no potential for commercial growth. Coffee shops are not economic development, folks! White- and blue-collar living-wage jobs make a city stronger, and there is no way we can lure those employers onto Lake Street without full I-35W acccess and a transit station anchor. No-build is not a good option for Lake Street.

The flyover

I support the flyover from Lake Street to East 28th Street for two reasons: to ease potential gridlock on Lake Street and divert truck traffic delivering to east-of-highway businesses.

With the southbound exit to Lake, we will be introducing a lot of new traffic onto Lake. Without the flyover we would need to add thru lanes — and I don’t think any us of supports more thru-traffic lanes on Lake Street.

Like it or not, the flyover also helps pedestrians by keeping the Wells/Allina traffic out of the Lake Street interchange. Lost housing is very difficult for everyone, and I don’t think any of us takes it lightly. I know that as a PAC we will insist that they be well compensated and supported in finding new housing.

38th Street

As a member of the Kingfield/Lyndale mitigation committee, I have spent a lot of time working with fellow residents to talk about the potential impacts of the 35th/36th street ramps moving to 38th Street.

While the Kingfield neighborhood board doesn’t support the Access Project, I know by working together with their representatives we have made it a better project if it happens.

That being said, I support the ramps being moved to 38th for a few reasons:

1. It more fairly distributes exit traffic at eight-block intervals on 35W between Lake Street and 46th Street. By spacing exits more evenly, we have a much more equitable distribution of the burdens of that entrance/exit traffic. This is an issue of simple fairness, and in my mind is the least controversial part of the project once Lake Street is fully accessible to and from the highway.

2. Currently there are four blocks between the 31st and 35th Street ramps — no one can tell me with a straight face that that situation should continue if Lake Street is given full access. You cannot continue to concentrate that amount of traffic between those few blocks. That close spacing has been a boot on our throats for 40 years, and moving the ramps to 38th is the equitable thing to do. (I get a little fired up over that one.)

3. 38th Street is more suited to exit traffic because of the commercial and institutional nodes on the street. A big emphasis of this project is putting traffic where it belongs; the 38th Street-corridor businesses will benefit because of the exit. Moving the exit will affect far fewer homes by moving it to one street (38th) rather than keeping it on two (35th and 36th).

4. The redesigned 35th-36th Street community connector bridges — with wider sidewalks and bike lanes along with a 34th Street pedestrian/bike bridge — is a great benefit to our neighborhoods. Without the Access project, I-35W will continue to be the canyon between east and west neighborhoods. Spacing the entrance/exit traffic will ultimately help all our neighborhoods by reducing traffic concentration.

5. I also believe that the dire predictions for blight on 38th Street are overblown, I think the new 38th Street will very likely resemble the current 46th Street interchange which is certainly not the worst thing in the world.

Going forward

I have not heard any argument persuasive enough to make me think that we should continue with the status quo and vote "no build." There are no alternative proposals that are even close to viable, and I frankly think we have waited too long to do something about this.

I also have very real fears of having something shoved down our throats in the current political climate. Governor-elect Pawlenty will be replacing the commissioner of MNDoT; something tells me the new commish won’t be the most progressive person in the world. I think we have a fair deal on the table that we could be very sorry we passed up if MNDoT decides to run the show. It is a very real possibility.

A thriving commercial sector is a key linchpin to a successful city — the new access points at Lake and 35W make that corridor more commercially viable in the years to come. It sends a message that Minneapolis is business-friendly which goes a long way in the current business climate. I look forward to the continued debate as the process continues.

Opposing the Access Project

By Jeanne Massey

I represent the Kingfield neighborhood on the Project Advisory Committee, and we opposed the project primarily because it disproportionately harms many residents living along and near 38th Street.

The project has one possible benefit: a new Lake Street ramp would reduce traffic using the 35th/36th street ramp (or 38th ramp if moved there) by an estimated 25 percent.

That’s because drivers won’t need to get off at 35th/36th/38th to get to Lake Street; fewer will also drive south to 35th/36th/38th to get on the freeway. Fewer trucks will also cut through neighborhood streets.

So what’s wrong?

1) The purported benefits linking improved I-35W access to economic revitalization are unknown. No cost-benefit analysis has been done, nor will be done.

The access improvements are marginal. Traffic can already access Lake Street and the freeway, just not as conveniently as drivers might wish. That does not justify a whopping $153 million in public investment.

Economic revitalization along Lake Street and 38th is unproven and possibly fallacious. Most thriving urban economic hubs are nowhere near freeway interchanges — look at Uptown, Linden Hills, 50th and France, among others.

Lake Street may be revitalized if Nicollet Avenue is opened, but that is not ramp-dependent. Eat Street is already revitalizing without any help from ramps whatsoever.

Additionally, moving the ramps may hurt businesses at 38th and Nicollet by taking very limited parking currently on both streets.

2) No one has proved that drivers will be safer if the 35th/36th ramps move to 38th.

Clearly the distance between the 31st and 35th street ramps is too short — but this freeway stretch is not a high-accident area, since drivers exercise caution.

Also, the present 35th/36th street system distributes ramp traffic east and west without jogging through residential streets; 35th Street stretches east to the river, and 36th Street extends to Lake Calhoun.

38th Street extends east to the river, but dead-ends at Lakewood Cemetery on the west. That creates a major problem for Linden Hills traffic, forced to jog between 36th and 38th streets on (mostly) residential streets.

3) Creating better access to the highway didn’t originally include new highway lanes. The PAC agreed to more High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, a big mistake because:

– It adds $45 million to the project’s budget.

– The decision sets the stage for new HOV lanes, undermining a full community process to determine this outcome.

– Adding I-35W lanes breaches a compromise reached between Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Transportation in the mid-1990s: no new lanes from 46th Street to downtown in exchange for no Light Rail Transit (LRT) on I-35W.

– There is no guarantee that HOV lanes will remain HOV lanes; they may become regular driving lanes, bringing more cars to Minneapolis neighborhoods and the freeway.

4) The project demolishes 16 units of affordable housing. This is an unreasonable trade-off when we have too many cars and too few affordable homes in the city. There is no plan to replace the lost housing.

5) There are no serious transit goals in the project. This is critical because the city has a priority for transit, not road construction, to improve economic development and livability. I believe that some neighborhoods support the current Access Project only because there are no better alternatives.

A faulty process

Government bodies made a mistake hiring a private firm like Smith Parker, contracted to advance the Phillips Partnership’s agenda and pre-existing solution (new ramps). That resulted in a PAC weighted with business interests while neighborhoods and elected officials were inconsistently represented.

As a community facilitator, I’m very familiar with the bad-process charge by those who don’t get their way. However, I do believe the process was wrong. An infrastructure project like this is thoroughly public, not private.

Where from here?

Starting over isn’t possible. So where do we go now?

City, county and state leaders must still approve the project in the next several months. They can modify the plan, add conditions, or say no. Opponents need to tell leaders why they are opposed to the current project and what we want instead.

If ramps must be built, I would advocate for northbound entrance and southbound exit ramps only at Lake Street, and press elected bodies to ensure the following conditions:

 

  • Leave the 35th/36th Street ramps in place, but mitigate their worst effects.

     

     

  • No flyover ramp from Lake Street to East 28th Street. Currently, traffic to Wells Fargo at 28th and Clinton must go through Lake Street, creating serious congestion problems.

     

    I would argue that transit, such as an employee park-and-ride, could alleviate congestion at less public cost.

     

  • No, or minimal, Lake Street widening. If a new lane is built, it must be dedicated to transit.

     

     

  • On 35W, a light-rail or bus-only lane, instead of an HOV lane.

     

     

  • A replacement housing policy for any housing lost due to reconstruction.

     

     

  • Traffic calming on 1st and Blaisdell avenues.

     

     

  • End the current PAC process and begin a new process to determine how to best move people in and around the Lake Street area and to revitalize and beautify the nearby neighborhoods.