Revisiting Highway 61

 Mapping Interstate 35's Impact on Duluth, Minnesota 

Estimated Impact

The following impacts are estimates. For more information on how these numbers were calculated, the methodology is described at the bottom of this page.

Homes Demolished

529

Businesses Destroyed

109

People Displaced

1,713

Minutes Faster To

Drive Across Town

13

Annual Property Tax Revenues Lost

$3,532,523

Tax Revenues Lost

Since Project Began

$127,658,395

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A Brief History

When Interstate 35 ​was proposed, it was drawn in a lengthy north-south line running cross-country from Laredo, Texas up to Duluth, Minnesota. By the 1960's, the interstate was intended only to run far enough into Duluth to make the connection with Superior, WI via the newly constructed Blatnik Bridge. The route, initially intended to end in Lincoln Park, was extended in a series of proposals which saw it reach Mesaba Avenue in Downtown, then 10th Avenue East in East Hillside, and then finally 26th Avenue East in Endion.

The first phases of the project went quickly. Between 1967-1973, the interstate was built from Boundary Avenue down through Duluth's western neighborhoods and into downtown via Mesaba Avenue. The freeway was intended to continue on blast through downtown Duluth, where it would then run on a large elevated concrete breakwater along the shore of Lake Superior until it reached 10th Avenue East. Citizens saw the damage caused in Duluth's west side and in spite of the waterfront's lackluster appearance at the time, they recognized that our connection to Lake Superior is our city's greatest asset.

The Citizens for Integration of Highway and Environment was formed in the early 1970s, organized around finding an alternate route for the freeway. Many potential routes were studied, from going around the city to simply not extending the freeway. One option called for the interstate to run through the eastern portion of downtown in a series of tunnels.​ This was the eventual selection which led to the preservation of lake access via a number of landscaped park decks. While the freeway was hailed as one of the nation's best examples of integrating an interstate in an urban environment, the tunnels still required the demolition of any structures in their path, and the non-tunneled areas still created new barriers to accessing the waterfront which had not existed previously.

The freeway ends abruptly at 26th Avenue East where traffic merges into the 2-lane London Road. The project was funded to extend all the way to the Two Harbors Expressway, but the city's east-side residents were successful in keeping the freeway out of their neighborhood. The remaining funds went to a number of beautification projects in downtown, notably the resurfacing of downtown's streets with brick. 

 

Many attribute the I-35 project as the kick-starter for Canal Park's revitalization as a tourist district. This is undeniably true, though Canal Park's proximity to the waterfront, abundance of classic architecture, and the draw of the Aerial Lift Bridge likely guaranteed this would happen eventually regardless of the freeway. One outcome which proponents of I-35 fail to acknowledge is the city's many business districts which were greatly harmed when customers began using the interstate to bypass them, not to mention the businesses and homes which were outright destroyed. Even though the eastern portion of the project did a better job of preserving buildings and access, the value of the lost structures as tax revenue generators in 2020 dollars is significantly greater than in any other phase of the project.

Today, the "Can of Worms" rehab gives us a good example of how expensive it will be to maintain the system built in previous decades. Many of the eastern portions of the freeway are getting closer to their rebuild dates, and there are few signs that maintaining these will be any cheaper. Some of these same stretches of I-35 also receive less than 50% of the traffic they were built to handle. This is why our project, Highway 61 Revisited, is looking to find alternative solutions to handling traffic in Duluth's downtown area.

The Growth Of Duluth's Highways

Jump To Your Neighborhood

Select A Year To View Areas Demolished

West Duluth

 
2020 Imagery
Historic Imagery
Demolition Zone
I-35
Highway 61

Estimated Impact

Homes Demolished

212

Businesses Destroyed

18

Annual Property Tax Revenues Lost

$480,505

People Displaced

676

Oneota

 
2020 Imagery
Historic Imagery
Demolition Zone
I-35
Highway 61

Estimated Impact

Homes Demolished

102

Businesses Destroyed

6

Annual Property Tax Revenues Lost

$244,898

People Displaced

337

Lincoln Park

 
2020 Imagery
Historic Imagery
Demolition Zone
I-35
Highway 61

Estimated Impact

Homes Demolished

203

Businesses Destroyed

7

Annual Property Tax Revenues Lost

$301,301

People Displaced

670

Downtown

 
2020 Imagery
Historic Imagery
Demolition Zone
I-35
Highway 61

Estimated Impact

Homes Demolished

Businesses Destroyed

0

44

Annual Property Tax Revenues Lost

$1,704,379

People Displaced

0

East Hillside

 
2020 Imagery
Historic Imagery
Demolition Zone
I-35
Highway 61

Estimated Impact

Homes Demolished

4

Businesses Destroyed

27

Annual Property Tax Revenues Lost

$559,671

People Displaced

10

Endion

 
2020 Imagery
Historic Imagery
Demolition Zone
I-35
Highway 61

Estimated Impact

Homes Demolished

Businesses Destroyed

8

10

Annual Property Tax Revenues Lost

$241,768

People Displaced

20

Methodology

Google Earth was used to collect a number of high resolution images of the city as it exists today. For the historic imagery, images from 1961 were gathered from the John R. Borchert Map Library's Minnesota Historical Aerial Photographs Online, which is an overall great resource for high quality historic imagery from across the state.

The images were stitched together in Adobe Photoshop, and the 2020 and 1961 layers were then aligned with each other. Using the 2020 layer, an outline of areas containing freeway infrastructure was highlighted. Overlaying the highlighted infrastructure area on the 1961 pre-interstate imagery showed the area within which all structures were demolished. 

Counting the demolished structures was done in a relatively crude manner. Searching within the outlined area, houses were denoted as apparent structures which were setback from the street with obvious garages, vegetation  and other typical features. Businesses were counted by recognizing typical business corridors and building shapes that were larger and ran right to their corresponding property lines. Manufacturing and rail-oriented facilities were included in this category. The approach proved to be conservative. For example, in West Duluth, 212 houses were noted in the inventory, whereas MnDOT engineers who worked on the project were quoted as saying there were up to 700 homes which were lost in West Duluth.

The annual lost property tax revenues were calculated by adding estimated lost property taxes for both homes and businesses. The home value was estimated by sampling the 2020 value of 10 random properties near the interstate in the given neighborhood using the Saint Louis County Land Explorer. These properties were believed to be similar to those in the demolition area, and were used to create an average property value for parcels in the given area. Using the League of Minnesota Cities tax calculator, an annual property tax payment was determined based on the average property value. The annual tax amount was then multiplied by the number of homes discovered during the inventory stage. For businesses, again 10 random parcels were selected per neighborhood and their 2020 values were used to determine an average property value for businesses in the area. This number was multiplied by 3.5%, which was determined to be an average property tax rate on businesses citywide. Taking the average tax paid and multiplying it by the number of businesses lost yielded the amount of annual tax revenue lost from businesses. The two numbers were added to provide the total amount lost listed in the neighborhood summaries.

The total amount lost since the project began was calculated by taking the annual rate for each neighborhood and multiplying it by the number of years since the area was demolished. Each neighborhood subtotal was added to get the final number.

The number of people displaced was found by multiplying the number of houses lost by the average household size during the demolition period (3.3 during 1961, and 2.5 during 1992, per U.S. Census Data).

Travel times were calculated using Google Maps.

© 2020 by Duluth Waterfront Collective.

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