By Bruce Bruemmer
In 2021, the StarTribune ran an article that answered a reader’s question about the 45mph speed limit on 35E in St. Paul, noting that “It can obviously support a much higher limit.” My eyes rolled upon reading that. In the early 1980s I lived in the West Seventh neighborhood and was well aware of neighborhood opposition to the freeway extension. In forty years’ time, the one concession to the highway won by groups like RIP 35E had become a historical footnote.
I thought about this when I read the obituary of Doré Mead in January of this year. I had volunteered as an advisory member to a University of Minnesota group studying the effect of the construction of 35W on South Minneapolis. Most people are familiar with the gutting of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, but little attention had been paid to the freeway’s effect on Minneapolis. While I lived in Doré’s ward during her time on the city council, I had no idea about her essential role in the freeway debate (probably because I was more focused on airport noise at the time). As I dug more deeply into the history, I became impressed with her involvement.
Residents of Minneapolis got their first preview of the plans for 35W in 1957. While some neighborhoods raised objections, there was minimal dissension and very few public meetings. Some citizens actually looked forward to the freeway’s promise of solving the city’s traffic problems. In spite of some spirited objections, the only significant change to the original route down Stevens and Second Avenues was the jog to the east to avoid running 35W into the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The freeway from the Crosstown to 31st Street opened January 14, 1967, and the negative effects of the urban highway on the neighborhood quickly became apparent.
By 1988 MnDOT proposed an expansion of 35W, which included the movement of sound barriers towards homes facing the freeway, more property displacement near the Crosstown and I94 intersections, and a continued lack of access from the north for Lake Street. This time not only were residents wary of giving more land to the freeway, but neighborhoods were also more organized than during the freeway’s initial construction. A new, all-volunteer group, the Neighborhood Transportation Network (NTN), was formed that year with Doré Mead as its president.
NTN was an interesting, new form of community advocacy in that it sought representation from fourteen neighborhoods along 35W, and released a data-driven analysis in 1988 that proposed a “Minimum Build/Maximum Management Alternative” to the simple expansion of more lanes. A Met Council transportation planner said that the 101-page report “was one of the more thoughtful and thorough studies I’ve seen” coming from a neighborhood group. At the same time, NTN drew many elected officials closer to their perspective. A number of NTN letters from Mead are found in Brian Coyle’s records, and they indicated close communication with south Minneapolis legislators and council members. Scott Dibble, now a state senator, was NTN’s secretary.
The group wanted MnDOT to stop focusing on highways and think more broadly about transportation. In that vein, NTN suggested mass transit alternatives over creating more highway lanes. To Mead, “widening roads to fight congestion [was] like loosening your belt to fight obesity.” NTN’s perspective was not easily dismissed by the state’s Department of Transportation (MnDOT), and when the issue drifted back to widening the freeway, Mead was not shy. NTN made sure that a 1992 state public hearing on the freeway was well attended when it distributed 23,000 flyers and organized rides for those who wanted to get to Richfield High School’s auditorium, the venue for the meeting. Some people still refer to it as the longest single public hearing in the state’s history (it went to from 7pm to 2:45am). While the video of the hearing is lost, some of it was contained in a 1993 NTN video production, We’re Not Los Angeles (which Doré provided to me for digitization).
Mead’s election to the Minneapolis City Council in 1994 gave her official standing in the debate over expanding the freeway. By 1995, the situation for metro area transit dramatically changed when funding ran out and increasing the gas tax became politically untenable. NTN and Mead had been successful in containing the expansion of 35W, although mass transit remained elusive. MnDOT was forced to return to planning for 35W and its approach to highways in urban areas was never quite the same again. Eventually 35W was renovated in South Minneapolis (as we all are aware), but it was nothing like what was envisioned in 1988. Much of that is because of Doré.
Remember that the next time you jump on the freeway.
A detailed history of Doré Mead’s transit advocacy is found in Politics and Freeways: Building the Twin Cities Interstate System by Patricia Cavanaugh (2006). Human Toll: A Public History of 35W is on exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum through September (https://hennepinhistory.org/avada_portfolio/human-toll-a-public-history-of-35w/ ).