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A Tale of Two Projects: I-94 and the Central Corridor Light Rail

Supported by the booming railway industry and local businesses, Rondo Avenue – named for Joseph Rondeau, moved there in the late 1850s from a site close to Fort Snelling, where he had faced discrimination due to his wife’s mixed white and indigenous heritage – was the heart of St. Paul’s largest African American neighborhood.

By the 1930s, nearly half of St. Paul’s black population lived in Rondo, and the neighborhood was home to integrated schools such as Central High School, Maxfield Elementary School, and parochial schools, created a relatively high level of education and literacy among minority residents.

That all came crashing down after President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956, sending funds for highway construction to municipalities across the country. The Federal-Aid Highway Act had authorized the secretary of commerce “to acquire, enter upon, and take possession of such lands or interest in lands by purchase, donation, condemnation, or otherwise” if states requested the federal government’s assistance in arranging rights-of-way planned highways.

First conceived of following World War I to connect St. Paul with Minneapolis, the planned route for Interstate 94 (I-94) cut directly through the middle of Rondo.

Shortly before construction began, local leaders African American community created the Rondo-St. Anthony Improvement Association to fight against the highway plan, but without modern laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to ensure community engagement and potentially identify alternative highway routes, the group’s options were limited.

Where Rondo used to be MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Their advocacy was successful in achieving a depressed (below-grade) construction of I-94, but the route still split the Rondo neighborhood and forced the evacuation and relocation of hundreds of people and businesses. In total, some 650 families saw their houses bulldozed to make way for I-94. One in every eight African Americans in St. Paul lost a home to I-94. Nearly 100 mostly black-owned businesses were forced to close. Many never re-opened.

In 2015, both the mayor of St. Paul and the head of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Charlie Zelle, formally apologized to the community for the original construction of I-94. “We would never, we could never, build that kind of atrocity today,” Zelle said.

One of the reasons I-94 could not be built in the same way today—scattering hundreds of families and destroying a neighborhood—is because of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Signed into law in 1970, NEPA requires government agencies to engage in a review process intended to discover any significant environmental and public health impacts before a decision is made. We teach our children to “look before you leap.” NEPA simply and sensibly requires our government to do the same.

A key component of this NEPA review process are mandated public comment periods, which often provide the only outlet for citizens to weigh in and voice their concerns about a project’s impact on their community.

The importance of NEPA and its public comment process to ensuring major infrastructure projects are built in line with the interests of local communities

The Twin Cities’ planning process for the new Metro Green Line, which was developed in the mid-2000s and required NEPA review, offers a firsthand view as to how the NEPA process works.

After Minneapolis-St. Paul released the initial plans for the new Metro Green Line in 2008, concerns were raised that the 11-mile route would stop only once per mile in predominantly African-American neighborhoods compared with once every quarter-mile in downtown Minneapolis.

As Nathaniel Khaliq, who was president of the St. Paul NAACP at the time stated, the Green Line “was really built to help folks on the eastern end and western end of St. Paul to get to their sports games and activities.”

Activists organized the “Stops For Us” campaign to push for three more stops in poorer neighborhoods in St. Paul. The victory came in 2010 when U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced an adjustment in the federal funding formula designed to make it more inclusive and equitable.

Map of the 11-mile Metro Green Line // Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Council.

The NAACP also raised concerns that project sponsors had failed to adequately analyze the impacts of the loss of parking from construction on predominantly black-owned businesses on the proposed route, filing a lawsuit in 2011.

In response, project sponsors used the NEPA process to hold additional meetings to hear the concerns of impacted communities. In total, the Metropolitan Council, City of St. Paul, and City of Minneapolis committed nearly $15 million to help small, local businesses in the corridor cope with the impacts of construction and the loss of street parking.

Although some twin city residents still remained opposed to the construction of the Metro Green Line, and that opposition should be respected, the NEPA review process provided a platform for real dialogue between local residents and city, state, and federal officials that resulted in clear improvements to the project.

In other words, had NEPA existed back in 1956, it would have given the Rondo-St. Anthony Improvement Association a fighting chance to save their community.

[1] “St Paul map shows how I-94 cut through heart of city’s African-American neighborhood.” City Pages. August 19 2014. Available at:
http://www.citypages.com/news/st-paul-map-shows-how-i-94-cut-through-heart-of-citys-african-american-neighborhood-6541556

[2] “Before it was cut in half by I-94, St. Paul’s Rondo was a thriving African-American cultural center.’ Minneapolis Post. June 19, 2017. Available at:
https://www.minnpost.com/mnopedia/2017/06/it-was-cut-half-i-94-st-paul-s-rondo-was-thriving-african-american-cultural-center/

[3] “When Communities Didn’t Have a Say.” Center for American Progress. April 24, 2018. Available at:
https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2018/04/24/449961/communities-didnt-say/

[4] “Project aims to reconnect local communities divided by Interstate 94.” Minnesota Daily. March 12, 2019. Available at:
https://www.mndaily.com/article/2019/03/n-project-aims-to-reconnect-local-communities-divided-by-interstate-94

[5] “The ghost of Rondo still haunts I-94.” Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. May 11, 2017. Available at:
http://spokesman-recorder.com/2017/05/11/ghost-rondo-still-haunts-94/

[6] “Citizens versus the Freeway: RIP-35E and the Pleasant Avenue Route through St. Paul.” Ramsey County Historical Society. Vol. 47, No. 4., 2014. Available at:
https://publishing.rchs.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/RCHS_Winter2014_Milton.pdf

[7] “Central Corridor: In the shadow of Rondo.” Minnesota Public Radio. April 29, 2010. Available at:
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2010/04/20/centcorridor3-rondo

[8] “Rondo Neighborhood & I-94: Overview.” Minnesota History Center. Accessed April 23, 2019. Available at:
http://libguides.mnhs.org/rondo

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