I-94: A Corridor of Complexity

If you cut a cross section out of a highway or interstate, the rst thing you will notice is that it is made of many layers— various types of gravel combined with asphalt or concrete, binding agents you can even see, and even grinding and paint. Likewise, a road that goes through a community affects a huge cross section of diverse people, organizations, religious groups, and cultures.

You would be hard pressed to nd a more culturally complicated road than Interstate 94 as it goes through Minneapolis and St. Paul. It affects six major communities that speak nine different languages, and it includes multiple immigrant communities who are not at all familiar with government processes here in the U.S. Add to that the history of I-94 and the Rondo neighborhood, and you begin to realize how complex the layers of this road are.

MnDOT has embarked on a study called Rethinking I-94 and it is a departure—a somewhat radical departure—from the way roads are usually studied by the Transportation Department. Under the banner of public engagement, MnDOT decided to study the I-94 corridor and nd out how to get previously under-represented populations involved in the planning process. This study is not attached to any particular project and will study I-94 from Broadway Ave. in Minneapolis all the way to Hwy 61 in St. Paul.

The Planner

Brian Isaacson is the Planning Director for the project. He says the rst thing that’s different about Rethinking I-94 is that the public engagement occurs much earlier in the process, during scoping and budgeting. He wants to create “real dialogue when it’s meaningful during the shaping of the project,” said Isaacson. In the past, public engagement happened after MnDOT had already made important deci- sions about how a construction project would commence. Not this time.

Finding the people who normally don’t comment on
transportation issues is the biggest challenge, said Isaacson,
but the payoff could be great. “If you were able to do that kind of engagement while you were developing a project rather im- mediately before construction, there might be some real bene ts to the overall process to have built those relationships” said Isaacson.

One reason for this is simple. Con icts over construction are much easier to avoid if you’ve got people involved proactively, early in the project. Likewise, the more people you’ve heard from early in a project the more apt they are to buy in to transportation decisions.

“Our community members are asking for more opportunities to engage with us. They want more input,” said Isaacson.

The Public Affairs Guy

Nick Carpenter is the Community Engagement/Public Affairs professional for the project. With the help of an anthropologist, he is working on early engagement with those hard-to- nd populations. Renters, said Carpenter, are particularly hard to nd and dif cult to get involved in the process. To date they have had 65 listening sessions with folks that normally wouldn’t be talking to MnDOT.

At least two things will come out of the study of I-94: a cultural pro le of the corridor and a set of tools that other MnDOT planners will be able to use as they develop other projects, both on I-94 as well as other corridors.

One partner Carpenter has worked extensively with is the West Bank Business Association. “They’ve done engagement work in their community. They know what works and what doesn’t work. It’s about partnering with them and building a relation- ship and getting an understanding of what we can do to get better turn out,” said Carpenter.

The nal goal of course is better feedback and more input from the community most directly affected by the highway.

The Anthropologist

Emilie Hitch is an anthropologist with Rabbit, a cultural consulting group, and one of the leads on this project. If it seems odd to be employing an anthropologist on a transportation project with a bunch of engineers and planners, it is. Hitch has been instrumental in the listening session and developing a historical map of the corridor.

She also gets to do a lot of translation work, but not the kind you might think. One of her challenges is to translate cultural analysis and communication into something that ts with the processes and mindsets of the engineer-minded folks inside MnDOT. She begins with empathy, which she calls “be comfortable being a little uncomfortable.”

Then she nds the common ground, which for her and MnDOT employees is problem solving. That’s a language both groups understand. She calls it a shared DNA of problem solving. Finally, it’s about curiosity, learning and understand the common goal both the engineers and the anthropologist share: better roads for a better community.

Said Hitch, “it’s not just about how do civil engineers survive in this world where we have anthropologists and public engagement, but it’s about how do we work together. The folks that I’ve have the most fun with are those who appreciate that I’m trying to move in their direction.”

This is not MnDOT’s rst foray into a different kind of public engagement for construction projects, but it is the most advanced and most complex. It’s is also probably the future for road construction in Minnesota.