By Kyle Stokes, MinnPost. Originally published March 1, 2023.
A proposal to build a land bridge over Interstate 94 in St. Paul — physically reconnecting a once-vibrant, historically-Black neighborhood torn in two by the freeway’s construction — took a step forward this week.
The nonprofit organization ReConnect Rondo and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th, announced Monday that the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $2 million grant to fund new studies of the idea.
ReConnect Rondo envisions building a roughly 20-acre lid over the freeway, to create space for new homes, parks and commercial spaces, and even re-link some of the street network of the old Rondo neighborhood.
The organization’s executive director, Keith Baker, sees the project — with a total sticker price of up to $454 million — as the heart of a revitalized “African American cultural enterprise district,” creating new economic activity that benefits the people displaced by I-94’s construction, their descendants and current residents.
“We’ve not been effective in creating change for African Americans in the state of Minnesota,” said Baker, who worked for MnDOT for 18 years before taking the helm at ReConnect Rondo. He said policymakers’ attempts to improve life for low-income people of color in St. Paul are often piecemeal — and the land bridge proposal would tie these efforts together in one big project.
The new land bridge study will be timely; MnDOT is in the midst of its own effort to gather public feedback on how to improve the I-94 corridor over the next several decades. One prominent group of activists has proposed removing the freeway altogether and replacing it with a pedestrian- and bike-friendly boulevard linking downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The land bridge idea would allow I-94 to remain in place.
MinnPost spoke with Baker about where his group goes from here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: Your goal is for the program to create ‘scalable change’ for the African American community and people of color in a wide range of areas — economic outcomes, health, education, housing. How does a land bridge help you achieve that goal?
Keith Baker: Rondo still is alive. There are descendants still living around, and outside of, St. Paul. Prior to the freeway going through, there was a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, civic fabric, that is about the culture of Rondo, and because people still live in Rondo, still have pride in Rondo, still have businesses in Rondo, still own homes in Rondo, still have spiritual connections to the institutions that remained in Rondo. Even though the freeway came through and dismantled these various aspects of the fabric, it can still be harnessed — but there’s not a drawstring to bring them together.
What’s important to focus on is not so much the land bridge, but how to catalyze activity with a transportation element — a land bridge — that connects the existing ecosystem.
We still have extraordinary disparities for people of color — Indigenous and Black people, and others. Policy can articulate the right things, but oftentimes the program design is faulty or those responsible for implementation are faulty. The philanthropic sector, cities, counties all put a lot of money into neighborhoods — but the way that it’s organized often falls short. We’ve not taken really a large systems look, the systems approach to looking at how policies work.
We see the creation of land over the freeway as important, not only symbolically, but in a physical sense, to help us begin to think through how to heal community and understand what it could mean residually into the future. If you leverage a transportation investment to do community-building — while the newly created structure, in and of itself, doesn’t create the kind of outcomes, it’s a catalytic mechanism that can create better outcomes.
MP: In other words, ‘It’s not just a bridge’?
Baker: That was actually one of our early taglines: ‘This is more than a bridge.’ It always has been more than a bridge.
But it’s hard to help people to visualize in a larger sense, because transportation historically has been an institution of pain for communities — the interstate freeway system tore communities apart — so how do you use an institution of pain as an institution of possibility? That’s a little bit of what we’re proposing.
MP: You’ve received planning grants in the past that funded a comprehensive feasibility study that came out in July 2020. In that light, what is the significance of the new grant that you just received?
Baker: We’re making a technical case, a business case, a moral case and a just case. Everything has to be founded in studies that articulate that case to the federal government, city, or county in language they understand.
This federal Reconnecting Communities Grant is incredibly important. It’s the first pot of money on the table again to help communities plan in areas devastated by the highway system. That in and of itself is a transformational idea to help communities plan what to do with the interstate system. We expect to use the resources to initiate an environmental impact study and a traffic-modeling study. The studies will tell us: If we were to put a land bridge in this geographic space, what does that really mean in terms of improving quality of life, and what potential challenges could we face? This is a normal required study for any project — particularly highway projects.
Parallel to this, MnDOT’s Rethinking I-94 initiative has its own environmental studies in the early stages, and MnDOT is responsible for it in the entire freeway corridor between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. At some point, there’s going to be an intersection of our two studies — and we believe that our study is going to help inform MnDOT’s study.
MP: Let’s talk about some of the ideas that have emerged as part of the state’s broader ‘Rethinking’ initiative. Does ReConnect Rondo view the land bridge proposal as mutually exclusive with the idea to turn I-94 into a normal surface street?
Baker: That’s a really important question. Through MnDOT’s process, right now, anyone can put forward an idea. One idea that’s been put forward is removing the freeway, and another idea that’s been put forward is the land bridge.
The land bridge idea certainly preceded the other significantly in terms of planning. The lid idea emerged from the community as early as 2009, and that is really driven by the neighborhood of Rondo. This idea of removal only emerged in the spring of last year.
This really is about the restorative development side of our work. Everything that our project is engaged in helps to meet the outcomes of climate change, a healthier environment, pollution reduction, incubation of green jobs, better economic outcomes — and the broader umbrella ideas I think are the same between the boulevard and the land bridge. The civic outcomes are basically the same.
MP: Proponents of removing the freeway told MPR News that allowing I-94 to remain in place ‘cements I-94’s harms for another another half century.’ They argue the Twin Cities Boulevard approach would lead to greater progress on climate goals or reducing dependence on cars. Does a land bridge allow officials to skirt a path that might be more ambitious, but — as they might argue — would lead to an even greater good?
Baker: The question I’d ask is, ‘Who gets to decide what’s good for Rondo?’ That’s really the core question. Who gets to decide what’s good for descendants of Rondo, those who lost directly? Somebody else wants to tell MnDOT what MnDOT should do, and thus tell the Rondo community — who have been directly impacted — what they should be doing.
MP: And what Rondo has said it wants to do is different from what the freeway removal folks are suggesting?
Baker: Well, they have not had any conversations with members of the community. There are 13 organizations that are called the Rondo Roundtable that, in one form or another, have been working together since the 1960s, since the freeway came through and destroyed the neighborhood.
To me, all we’re doing is catalyzing the effort to stitch the Rondo community together with transportation investment that reverses past wrongs — that’s part of what we’ve been working towards since 2009.
MP: I mean, wouldn’t their idea save an awful lot of money? Instead of paying all that would be necessary to build bridge abutments, would the money be better spent if it went straight to building housing and commercial spaces? Maybe there’s potential for the two camps to work together here.
Baker: Let me say this — people are operating under a set of assumptions that really will be cheaper and better to fill in the freeway. I haven’t seen a formal study that tells me that yet. I haven’t seen an engineer or planner that’s going to put their name on that yet. There are no other studies that tell me that filling in the freeway is going to really benefit Rondo folks — elders, descendants or current Rondo residents, or St. Paul residents. No one’s been able to show me that. When that happens, then I can seriously take a look at it.
MP: Speaking of funding, how do you get your plan funded? Your 2020 feasibility study outlines a few options, but attempts to make the case for the most ambitious: a land bridge that covers about half of I-94 between Lexington and Dale. You estimated the preferred concept could cost as much as $454 million. That’s a lot of money! How do you get that much funding?
Baker: People say this is a lot of money, but let’s put this in perspective.
Let’s separate the development on top of the land bridge, which is $170 million to be financed via public-private partnership and the investment of people in the neighborhood themselves. If you go to Klyde Warren Bridge in Dallas, that’s a really good example. Klyde Warren Bridge (a 5-acre park on a lid over a state freeway) has a private foundation that is responsible for all of the land maintenance, programming, above the structure.
About 80% of the rest of the cost can be paid for using federal resources from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021.
That really means that the costs from the state for the land bridge structure is about $80 million.
That’s roughly the same amount invested in Target Field for its infrastructure — about $90 million, because that stadium sits over a freeway, right?
The state spent $350 million on U.S. Bank Stadium — a private development project — with the anticipation of bringing economic prosperity to the region. I’m not debating whether that was a good idea — I don’t really want to get into that — but I’m saying there is no direct correlation that I see between that state investment and any of the prosperity indicators in Rondo.
MP: What’s a realistic time frame for your project? If this bridge is going to get built, how long will it take?
Baker: Isn’t that the big question? I could tell you what our aspirations are, but projects take a long time to develop. We think a reasonable schedule includes four phases. Over the next year-and-a-half or two years, we should emerge having completed our studies. Between 2024 and 2026, we start to firm up some of the finances for the structure and ensure development is in place as well.
If I had my way, I’d love to at least break ground with something in 2027 — but we’ll see what ultimately happens, because again, we have to coordinate at a certain point with the city, county and MnDOT’s Rethinking I-94. So we’ve got to maintain the pace we’ve set for the marathon.