Driving the I-35W Access Project

The $152 million freeway overhaul is moving toward final approvals, and Tom Johnson has shepherded it start to finish

The $152 million I-35W Access Project all started five years ago with an effort to get new ramps at 26th and 28th streets, making easier freeway connections for Abbott Northwestern Hospital, 800 E. 28th St.

"That is all I had in mind back then," said Tom Johnson, who, in 1997, was a consultant with Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Allina Hospitals and Clinics. "That is all we wanted to do. That was our project."

Those freeway plans grew and now could significantly affect traffic near I-35W. The project would relocate the 35th/36th Street ramps to 38th Street, add new ramps at Lake Street and add a northbound exit to 28th Street and change freeway access ramps from 5th Avenue.

The project has had its share of controversy. Critics say the new ramps would bring more traffic to some areas, widen Lake Street and, potentially, expand I-35W (the Minnesota Department of Transportation has required that the new design accommodate future High Occupancy Vehicle lanes). They say Johnson was the wrong choice to guide the process because of his ties to large corporate and nonprofit institutions that had a stake in the outcome.

Proponents say the project corrects errors of the past design and has enjoyed unprecedented public involvement and support.

Johnson has been at the hub throughout, first with Abbott Northwestern, then later as the project manager for the I-35W Project Advisory Committee (PAC), a group of neighborhood, institutional and business leaders that met for more than three years to shape the project.

The plan has a lot of momentum. The federal government already has approved $10.7 million for the project’s design and right-of-way acquisition, according to Hennepin County staff overseeing funding. Congress is discussing an added $9 million appropriation this year. The project has already cost $3.1 million in design and consulting fees, 80 percent paid for by federal money, the other 20 percent from city, county and state money.

The City Council and Hennepin County Board are expected to vote on the plan in April or May. How did we get from the 26th and 28th Street ramps to a major $152 million freeway makeover?

The Phillips Partnership: a driving force Johnson has a background in public affairs, marketing and legislative relations in both road and transit projects. His jobs have included Director of Marketing and Public Affairs for the Office of Minnesota Road Research for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). He served as the Assistant Chief Administrator for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He also worked as director of national relations for MnDOT.

In 1997, he left MnDOT and went out on his own, getting the consulting job with Abbott Northwestern in part from a recommendation from Allina Foundation’s Executive Director, Mike Christiansen, he said. Johnson had worked for Christiansen in the early 1990s when Christiansen was chief administrator for what is now Metro Transit.

Johnson finished the Abbott Northwestern study and in January 1998 presented his recommendations — transit changes, new signage and new freeway ramps 26th and 28th streets, he said.

He presented his findings to various groups, including the Phillips Partnership.

"I had never heard of the Phillips Partnership," Johnson said.

But the project soon bore the Partnership’s imprimatur.

The Phillips Partnership is a group of political and corporate leaders working to improve Phillips, an economically troubled neighborhood bounded by I-35W and Hiawatha Avenue and by Lake Street and Franklin Avenue.

The Partnership formed in 1997 to lower crime in the neighborhood and improve housing, job opportunities and infrastructure, its leaders say.

Its eight-member board now includes executives from Wells Fargo, Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Children’s Hospitals and Clinics, the Minneapolis Foundation and government representatives.

In early 1998, the Partnership adopted the freeway ramps at 26th and 28th streets as its infrastructure program to improve the neighborhood, Johnson said. (At that point, Honeywell, not Wells Fargo, was on the board. The 26th Street southbound freeway exit would eventually get dropped as not technically feasible.)

In approximately March 1998, Johnson and technical consultant Scott McBride moved into offices at law firm Smith Parker to work on the freeway ramp feasibility study, the next step in the process. Smith Parker is legal counsel to the Phillips Partnership, "One month, Abbott Hospital would pay. The next month it would be Honeywell. Next month it would be Children’s Hospital," Johnson said. "Every month, somebody would pay me. I wasn’t under any contract. I wasn’t an employee. It was a loose deal."

Shaking the money tree In March 1998, Johnson began informal talks with a group of neighborhood and business leaders to keep them abreast of his work on the 26th and 28th street freeway ramps — and they started giving him advice, he said.

The group of roughly a dozen people attended the informal meetings, including Craig Anderson from Central neighborhood (east of I-35W between Lake and 38th streets, and Chicago Avenue), Johnson said. It included representatives of the Lake Street Council, a business group, and Lake Street Partners, a community development group.

The 26th/28th Street ramp project "started to grow with that group coming up with alternatives," Johnson said. "Lake Street Council and Lake Street Partners, they were talking — we need ramps at Lake Street. We never got them. We should have."

The Phillips Partnership did not propose the Lake Street ramps, Johnson said — but it did not oppose the project’s growth if the community wanted it. He attributed the Lake Street ramp proposal to "an informal mushroom" of support from neighborhood people and businesses.

That idea quickly gained significant city, county and federal support.

Roughly two months after the talks with neighborhood leaders started, Johnson said he and Louis Smith, legal counsel for the Phillips Partnership, went to Washington D.C. to talk with the city’s congressional delegation about funding the Lake Street ramps.

Johnson knew the government ropes; he had previously worked as MnDOT’s federal lobbyist, he said. Congress would act on the federal highway bill in May, so they did not have much time if they wanted to secure money that year.

The Partnership needed to show Congress it had local government support. On May 12, 1998, the Hennepin County Board unanimously passed a resolution asking Congress to fund the project. The City Council passed a similar resolution on May 22, 1998, 11-0.

The city resolution said in part it supported "efforts to provide greater accessibility to and from Lake Street and the adjoining neighborhoods." The county resolution said it supported "the work of the Phillips Partnership and other organizations striving to revitalize the Lake Street area."

The resolutions said the Met Council and Metro Transit supported the project since they wanted a new transit station at I-35W and Lake Street.

On June 8, 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the transportation reauthorization bill designating the Lake Street project as a national "high priority" and approved $2 million, said staff at Rep. Martin Sabo’s (D-Minn.) office.

The project has since received supplemental appropriations of $4.7 million and $4 million.

Adding the 38th Street ramp Some government agency had to administer the federal money.

Jim Grube, Hennepin County’s transportation director, said the city of Minneapolis did not have the experience in highway design and MnDOT was skeptical about a project, so the county agreed to take the lead.

The county made sole-source contracts with Smith Parker to manage the project and OSM engineering for technical work, Grube said.

At that point, around January 1999, Johnson said he became an employee of Smith Parker to spearhead the project.

(Grube said the sole-source contracts made sense because Johnson and staff at OSM already had experience on the project. OSM eventually disbanded, and SEH Engineering now has the engineering contract.)

As project manager, Johnson helped create the neighborhood and business committee known as the I-35W Project Advisory Committee, which had its first meeting March 30, 1999, Johnson said. The membership was fluid, changing over time.

"There was no formula set," he said. "We started to contact who we knew. We spread the word we were looking for organizations and people. We ended up with a starting group who were appointed by their neighborhood organizations or by their business associations or their company."

"We didn’t say, ‘we want this person, this person and this person.’"

The group’s voting membership eventually included half neighborhood representatives and half from businesses and nonprofits.

At the fourth meeting, June 29, 1999, the PAC voted to move the 35th and 36th Street ramps to 38th Street, a proposal from a Central neighborhood representative, Johnson said. That triggered Kingfield and Bryant neighborhood PAC involvement. (Bryant is bordered by I-35W, 38th and 42nd streets and Chicago Avenue.)

Changes to the 5th Avenue ramp brought Ventura Village representatives to the table, he said. (Ventura Village is in the north end of the Phillips neighborhood, bounded by I-94W and East 24th Street and I-35W and the Soo Line Railroad.)

By the time the PAC voted to support the project last November, it had reviewed dozens of proposals and met or held open houses 62 times — not counting separate meetings by the mitigation subcommittee to find ways to soften the traffic impact on neighborhoods.

The value of partnerships To some, the PAC represents unprecedented civic involvement in a public works project. It has recommended $29 million in improvements to mitigate increased traffic through surrounding neighborhoods.

Others view the PAC process as something set up to deliver what business leaders wanted in the first place. Jeanne Massey, a Kingfield resident who served on the PAC and who voted against the project, said the government erred in hiring Smith Parker, "contracted to advance the Phillips Partnership’s agenda and preexisting solutions."

"No-build was never a serious option," said Dave Harstad, a Whittier resident who served on the PAC for a year and resigned. "The members of the PAC seemed to be there more to deal with all the details of the project rather than the larger policy implications of whether or not the project was a good idea in the first place."

(The Whittier neighborhood representative on the PAC voted against the project.)

PAC Chair Craig Anderson and others who support the project note the PAC had a majority of people who lived or worked in the surrounding neighborhood and the 17-3 vote was overwhelmingly positive.

"I believe we were more rigorous, balanced, responsive, open to and respectful of differing and uncomfortable viewpoints than most neighborhood and grassroots organizations," he said.

Some people may have thought different neighborhoods in south Minneapolis — let alone neighborhoods and businesses — would not be able to work together and agree on anything, he said.

"The fact that we created and sustained a viable process with as much consensus as we achieved is quite an unusual accomplishment for this territory," Anderson said. "In that case, maybe we are being criticized for our success."

Harstad said the larger issue to him is whether this sort of public-private partnership is a good tool for channeling public sentiment.

"I would argue that we live in a representative democracy and our elected officials are paid to make these tough decisions."

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin is a member of the Phillips Partnership, supports the I-35W Access Project and supports the process.

"In no case — in no case — was control over any public policy matter or public appropriation of money EVER handed over to the public-private partnership," he said. "The public-private partnership was a way of organizing discussion."

Said Johnson: "These Phillips Partnership members — whether it was Children’s or Abbott or Wells Fargo or, back then, Honeywell — everyone said to me and to themselves in these meetings, we will not force this on the communities. If the community doesn’t want the project, we won’t build it."