Learning From I-94

This article from Streets.MN reminded me of a wonderful essay written by Brian McMahon, the Executive Director of University UNITED (who also happens to be my dad!): “Learning From I-94.” It’s an essay that I believe bears a lot of relevance to the current debate in Minneapolis regarding the Southwest Light Rail project. Just as some background, this essay was written prior to the construction of the Central Corridor light rail project (a project that University UNITED wholeheartedly supported). But not all transit projects are created equal. My sincere hope is that we can apply the lessons from the history of the I-94 project–rather than repeat them.

Learning From I-94

Almost fifty years ago the construction of I-94 caused massive physical and social disruption in St. Paul, and its repercussions are still being felt as the community is today bracing for light rail. What is little known today is that there was an alternative highway route proposed by the Planning Engineer of St. Paul that if selected would have had a far less disruptive and divisive impact on the community. This entire story was the subject of a fascinating book written during the period as an urban planning case study.

Alan A. Altshuler was a graduate student in Chicago in the late 1950’s completing a Ph.D. on the topic of city planning. He selected the Twin Cities for his study area “because their reputations were favorable, both in terms of the political environment that they provided for planning and the quality of practice which they received from their professional planning staffs”. His timing couldn’t have been better because both St. Paul and Minneapolis were working on comprehensive plans, and this was the moment when the “Intercity Freeway” was being planned. His dissertation was later published as a book entitled, The City Planning Process: A Political Analysis, by Cornell University Press in 1965. It is not only an excellent “behind the scenes” documentation of events unfolding on the ground, but is also an extremely insightful and profound look at city planning generally. To combat the worsening problems of automobile congestion throughout the country, the Federal Highway Act was enacted in 1956. It called for a 40,000 mile national freeway system to be funded 90 percent by the Federal government and 10 percent by the states.

In Minnesota, and throughout the country, routes were selected primarily by engineers for the purpose of relieving traffic congestion, without much regard to other urban concerns. Transportation engineering was becoming more sophisticated during this period, with the introduction of surveys to study trip origins and destinations, the use of “desire-line” maps, “critical control points”, and the like. The proposed (and ultimately selected) route for I-94 met most of the “desire lines” identified in the technical analysis. Another important criterion for route selection was the ability “to build with the least resistance.”

Over one million people were displaced around the country during the building of the federal highway system. In the Twin Cities, there was considerable resistance to the proposed route by the merchants of downtown St. Paul, the historic African-American community of Rondo, and the Prospect Park neighborhood in Minneapolis, among others. The various groups never managed to join forces to create an effective opposition and were largely unsuccessful in impacting the project. The downtown merchants filed a law suit and lost. The residents of Prospect Park were largely ignored. Residents of Rondo mounted the strongest challenge, because of the devastating impact the proposed route would have on their community. Altschuler’s book takes us behind-the scenes to strategy sessions where the black leaders agonize as to whether they should maintain outright opposition, or a more conciliatory approach in the hope of extracting a better deal. In the end, approximately 400 African-American families were displaced, of 2,900 families city-wide. The loss in Rondo was well-over one-fifth of the black population of St. Paul, at a time when there was no open-housing ordinance available to enable families to move freely throughout the city. However, Altschuler credits the strong Rondo opposition with producing the most significant concessions made along the entire route. Plans for an elevated highway were rejected and the highway was depressed. Also, according to Altschuler, the condemnation awards for the homes were generally above market value, and the displaced families received a year of rent-free occupancy.

Throughout this multi-year process, George Herrold, the St. Paul Planning Engineer consistently voiced strong opposition to the proposed route on a number of grounds. He “did not believe the automobile should dominate cities”, and he had particular concerns about disrupting stable neighborhoods. He wrote, “the freeway idea… requires the moving of thousands of people, who must give up their homes, churches, schools, neighbors and valued social contacts, who lose the institutions they have built for their pleasure and profit.” He was particularly disturbed by the impact it would create for the Rondo neighborhood. Herrold proposed an alternative route, which would parallel the train tracks to the north, where Pierce Butler Route is currently located. This option would not only spare the neighborhoods, it also would avoid severing the state capitol from the downtown. One of his additional arguments, that has surely proven prescient, is that the current freeway route located parallel to the train tracks to the north would create a disconnected “island” that would be difficult to integrate into the larger community. Herrold’s alternative option was never given serious consideration because the engineers had made up their mind and were able to control the discussion by exploiting their perceived technical expertise. Their “irrefutable” data overwhelmed opponents, who were kept isolated and divided. In addition, the highway engineers used “creeping fait accompliism” to create an air of inevitability that ground down the opposition.

Throughout the entire process, George Herrold understood that without his own equally “irrefutable” data he could not prevail. Under such circumstances, “expertise” will generally win out over wisdom, and technocrats will triumph over policy makers.

In addition to technical superiority, there were two additional reasons the highway opponents were not successful. It was never clear who had ultimate jurisdiction over the project. Typically, decisions were made by MN DOT engineers who were not “local” and not responsive to local political concerns. Additionally, if opposition efforts ever started to gain traction, the engineers threatened to stop the project and spend the money for highway construction in other cities, in this case Minneapolis. That usually ended the discussion.

Alan A. Altschuler is currently Dean of the Harvard University School of Design, and the Ruth and Frank Stanton Professor in Urban Policy and Planning University UNITED has several copies of the book available on loan. If interested call (651) 647-6711.

Excerpts from “The City Planning Process: A Political Analysis by Alan A.

p. 18 Of the three sets of actors whose approaches to St. Paul’s freeway program will be described – highway engineers, organized private interests, and professional city planners – only the first had technical procedures for predicting the precise benefits to be derived by building on the basis of any particular design.

p. 43 The engineers of the state Highway Department … believed that their task was to build highways, not ruminate about the general needs of cities. Their method was research that yielded quantitative conclusions; art, they reasoned was only needed to fill in the gaps. Their commodity was expertness, not wisdom”.

p. 53 “The Highway Department had its own reasons for appearing inflexible. Traffic and cost data were recognized as authoritative and impartial by all parties… Secrecy could be maintained until the proper time for public announcements… At the stage of public discussion, inflexibility tended to hold down the level of controversy. Highway personnel determined that when the department acceded to the demands of one group of interested citizens, other groups were encouraged to make demands.”

p. 59 “In practice… no dramatic showdowns ever seemed necessary. The Highway Department seemed to make reasonable decisions, and it never presented firm plans at meetings with city officials. All plans were presented as tentative, and all meetings with city personnel were primarily to elicit ideas for further study… the decision process appeared from his vantage point as “creeping fait accompliism”.

p. 79 “Highway engineers emphasized that traffic and cost data were quantitative and impartial. They believed they were able, therefore, to prove they had selected the highway routes without favoritism toward any group or interest. … Such data were conclusive, while public consultation was seldom so…. The only thing one could be sure of was that the general public had been inadequately represented.”

p. 83 “This is not to say that … [the planners] … lacked ideas about how cities should be laid out. Their profession did provide them with such ideas, but not with standards for determining when and how to strive for their effectuation. Planners recognized that many important aspects of life had no price because they could not be bought or sold. They seemed to have made little progress, however, in defining these aspects, discovering how they were affected in specific situations, or evaluating their importance. Consequently, planners in St. Paul were more or less forced to accept on faith the
Highway Department’s assumption that other effects of the freeway besides those involving traffic would somehow “balance off” or prove beneficial on balance. Lacking conviction that another plausible viewpoint was available, they accepted the engineering point of view … as their own.”

Brian J. McMahon
Executive Director, University UNITED
Author of A Short History of the Ford Plant available as an e-book.


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