Freeway free-for-all on I-35W

The $156 million I-35W Access Project will boost Southwest businesses and restore residential streets — or ruin businesses and wreak havoc on residential streets. A debate.

The I-35W Access Project — a plan to reconfigure highway ramps between 26th and 38th streets — would dramatically affect many Southwest streets near the state’s highest-capacity roadway.

A Project Advisory Committee (PAC) of residents, businesspeople and neighborhood representatives agreed on a preferred design — though not everyone is happy. Some representatives see the plan as wildly expensive, encouraging driving far more than transit, with business benefits that are oversold and neighborhood problems minimized.

Two Southwest neighborhood PAC representatives, Lyndale’s Scott Persons and Kingfield’s Sean Wherley, take distinctly different views on the $156 million project — Persons for and Wherley against.

It’s a debate that will shape the roads we drive for the next several decades.

Split decision

Persons, a renter-turned-homeowner in the Lyndale neighborhood, began following the issue in 1998. He is in favor of moving the 35th/36th ramps out of his Lyndale neighborhood onto 38th in Kingfield, Wherley’s neighborhood.

Persons became involved in 2001 on a joint Lyndale-Kingfield mitigation committee to figure out how to ease the project’s impact on 38th and other streets that would see more traffic. In Summer 2003, he joined the PAC.

"I supported [the project] to make sure that traffic’s where it belongs, on Lake Street," Persons said.

Persons said getting more traffic to Lake is needed, because it can handle the traffic and is a commercial corridor. Traffic planners say to reconfiguring the current 31st street ramp would push that exit too close to the current 35th Street entrance — one reason to move 35th/36th street ramps to 38th.

"Ramps must move to 38th Street to spread out [I-35W] ramp traffic. If you’re going to do something at Lake Street, you have to do that."

Besides, he said, "Thirty-fifth and 36th streets were poorly designed" to accommodate highway traffic that is better handled on wider streets.

Wherley, a Kingfield renter, said he lived in Washington, D.C. and said he was astounded by that city’s farflung transit system. He said he got involved with the Access Project because he wanted to see something better here. "There’s got to be a better way to get people around in the Twin Cities. We can’t afford to rely on road construction," he said.

Wherley joined the Kingfield Neighborhood Association board in April 2002 and the PAC a year later. He said he immediately became concerned with project’s direction, design-wise and beyond.

Wherley said moving the ramps to improve the area is unnecessary, expensive and would make Lake Street an in-town highway, not a place to stop and shop.

Too much money?

Wherley said the project’s cost — currently estimated at $156 million — does not match the return.

He predicts that the Access Project, and the Crosstown Commons reconstruction project a few miles south on I-35W "will disrupt people’s lives and have a huge effect on air and water. [The reconstructed roadway] will fill on day one, so now what?"

He paints a picture of traffic moving just as slowly, only with more cars spewing toxins into Southwest-area air.

Wherley believes the success of the Hiawatha Light Rail line and unbreakable I-35W congestion means people should focus on highway transit, not a $156 million expansion and ramp-shuffling. The Access Project only includes a transit station and carpool access on some ramps.

He believes the project must include operating light-rail or bus rapid transit, a light-rail like system using dedicated highway lanes and stations.

Persons, too, supports transit, noting that the Access Project’s bridge reconfiguration would allow new lanes that could accommodate bus rapid transit, also known as BRT. In December, the Minnesota Department of Transportation will release a BRT feasibility study and many are hopeful it will lead to a state commitment to run BRT through the Crosstown and Access Projects into downtown.

Persons says he’s excited by the study. "If we can do BRT and have a transit station that would really help [residents] out," he said.

Persons said while he understands Wherley’s concerns about the project as a whole, Wherley’s transportation goals are larger than the Access Project’s scope — maybe too large.

Wherley counters that with many transportation projects slated for the same half-decade, the community must look at the big picture.

Business influence

The Access Project began in part to give better access on 26th and 28th streets to Abbott Northwestern and Children’s hospitals at 28th & Chicago.

Throughout the project, representatives of large businesses along the I-35W Minneapolis corridor such as Allina, Wells Fargo and the hospitals have actively participated in the project, some on the PAC.

Business muscle was evident when Allina pushed for the City Council to vote on the "concept plan" in January. Allina hinged its commitment to put its headquarters in the former Sears building on Lake & Bloomington on a Council endorsement of the Access Project.

This sort of pressure has led many project opponents, such as Wherley and other opponents such as a group called STRIDE (Southside Traffic Reduction Initiative for Determining our Environment), to assert there’s been unfair play and misplaced priorities.

Said Wherley, "The needs of the company are dictating the [city process] timeline, not the needs of the neighborhoods — both for and against it. Allina forced the cities hand. Why can’t neighborhoods force the cities hand?"

Persons has the opposite view. He said he’s "glad Allina pushed," because the committees with residents and public meetings had gone on for years. Persons also said Allina would be a great benefit to the area. "I like to have Allina in my neighborhood. To have a major employer push for jobs in my neighborhood is a good thing," he said.

Community impact

While Persons touts the plan as a boon for businesses and neighborhoods, Wherley paints it as a threat.

Persons says the most important part of this project is to get traffic off 35th and 36th streets and on to Lake Street and 38th Street, which are true commercial streets.

Wherley, on the other hand, is worried about the disruption to immigrant businesses on Lake Street — merchants he said turned that area around without a $100-million-plus road project. "They invested in the neighborhood at a tie when no one else cared. An influx of cars isn’t going to enhance their effort."

Wherley and other critics say more cars on Lake and on 38th won’t mean more shoppers. More traffic pushes drivers to get through an area, not necessarily stop at local stores.

Wherley also believes the Access plan might violate federal requirements that state projects not unduly harm neighborhoods of color; many neighborhoods bordering Lake Street the highway have higher percentages of blacks and Latinos than citywide.

"Transportation always hammers the poorest first, because they have the quietest voice," Wherley said.

Wherley said that Kingfield is the wealthiest neighborhood in the project area, it should stand up for poorer neighborhood such as Whittier. The Kingfield Neighborhood Association has voted to explore a lawsuit to stop the Access Project. However, after the city of Minneapolis refused to grant municipal consent for Crosstown Commons’ reconstruction, the neighborhood is waiting to see how the city’s action will affect the Access Project.

Persons said that small businesspeople, including immigrant businesses, have backed the project, precisely because it will bring more customers their way. Neighborhoods east of the highway with 38th Street business nodes have supported the project because it might bring them more customers; a majority of neighborhood reps on the PAC supported the preferred-build plan.

Some Southwest residents would see higher traffic due to the ramp reconfiguration. Persons and Wherley both support so-called "mitigation" funds that would calm traffic and direct as much as possible onto non-residential streets.

However, Wherley worries that mitigation is something that is easily tossed overboard especially if Access Project funding is tight.

Funding gap

Wherley questions whether the Access Project will ever be funded, especially when the Crosstown Reconstruction and a Lake Street re-build from Dupont Avenue to the Mississippi River are soaking up transportation funds.

The Crosstown Project has a $201 million price tag; the estimate for rebuilding Lake Street is $25 million.

There is only approximately $51 million reserved for the Access Project’s $156 million budget; by the time construction starts, costs might be much higher. Wherley said it would take a huge financial commitment from the state to make the project happen.

Persons said he expected funding for the Access Project to be further along than it is and it’s a concern. Many Access Project supporters say Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s no-new-taxes stance chokes off funds needed for necessary highway improvements. Persons said he hopes the situation will improve.