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An aerial view of the I-35W and I-494 interchange, looking northeast

An aerial view of the I-35W and I-494 interchange, looking toward the northeast.

Freeways and politics

New report examines the stories behind the Twin Cities interstate freeway system

By Rick Moore

Dec. 15, 2006

Fifty years ago, the way we get around in America changed forever when the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 cleared the way for America's interstate freeway system.

What many people nationwide don't know is that the idea for an interstate system--often credited to President Dwight Eisenhower--had a number of precursors, dating back to a report in 1944 and the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.

And what many people in Minnesota might not know is that although the freeway system in the Twin Cities area has been well established for decades, there were countless political battles along the way, and every stretch of road has its own story to tell.

A recent book-length report from the U, Politics and Freeways: Building the Twin Cities Interstate System, produced by Patricia Cavanaugh, captures some of those stories. The report outlines the history of the interstate freeway and highway infrastructure in the Twin Cities area--with a focus on the memories and perspectives of those involved in the decision-making.

Politics and Freeways is a publication of the U's Center for Transportation Studies and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA).

"It was very much a joint effort, with the Center for Transportation Studies bringing resources and experiences in transportation planning and civil engineering, and CURA incorporating more the citizen participation and policy and planning," Cavanaugh says.

Cavanaugh notes that state troopers called the commons section "Blood Alley," according to an article in the Minneapolis Tribune.

In examining the Cities' interstate history, Cavanaugh uses three different eras for a framework--the mega-projects era, from 1956 to the late 1960s, the era of expanded debate from 1970 to the mid-1990s, and the era since then, which she characterizes as "falling behind."

Crosstown Commons: a debate for the ages

Anyone in the metro area who tunes into traffic reports knows that the Crosstown Commons--that area near the border of Minneapolis and Richfield where I-35W and Highway 62 share lanes and snarl traffic--gets perhaps more airtime than any other trouble spot. It's been that way seemingly forever, and there's certainly no easy fix in sight.

A long-awaited project to expand the Crosstown Commons and improve traffic flow, scheduled to begin in 2006 and be completed in 2009, was pushed back this summer when the proposal did not receive any bids from contractors.

But according to a case study in Politics and Freeways, the Crosstown saga dates back to the year 1940, when a report by the Minneapolis Planning Commission suggested that a highway be built along 60th Street to expedite "the transportation of livestock by truck" from the western metro area to the stockyards on the other side of the city.

In 1949 the Minneapolis City Planning Commission proposed a crosstown highway along the alignment where Highway 62 exists today (to complement another suggested crosstown expressway along 28th Street, which never came to pass). Other suggestions included diagonal routes for I-35W through the area that had only single interchanges with Highway 62 and no commons area (where two highways run along the same stretch), but those were deemed less desirable than the plan with the commons.

Another area of contention was whether or not to include ramp access to Lyndale Avenue, and here was a case where community involvement was key. Cavanaugh notes that the Richfield Chamber of Commerce strongly supported access at Lyndale for the sake of the city's business community, and with support from the Richfield city council, was successful in getting the design changed to include the interchanges.

The Crosstown Commons finally opened in 1966, but within a year Highway 62 was carrying twice the volume of cars, and criticism began pouring in from many quarters. Cavanaugh notes that state troopers called the commons section "Blood Alley," according to an article in the Minneapolis Tribune.

Interestingly, the Politics and Freeways report notes in one high-level meeting in 1968 to discuss the Crosstown's problems, the only point of consensus "was to move slowly with regard to making the improvements."

Memories remain vivid

Cavanaugh's other case studies include Interstate 94 from St. Paul to Minneapolis; Interstate 35E; I-394; I-335 (or the North Ring), which was never built; I-94 from I-494/I-694 to Highway 95; and the I-35W expansion.

In all, the report took about two and a half years to complete, and Cavanaugh interviewed some 30 key people, including planners, politicians, civil engineers, journalists and citizens.

Cavanaugh says she enjoyed doing the research, but was surprised at the fervor of some of the players involved over the years.

"I didn't expect the politics of it to remain as vivid as they are--the political actors who were involved in these disputes remain quite animated about them."

The report is available online at CTS reports or CURA reports; a limited number of print copies are also available.


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