On October 28, 1992, Duluth, Minnesota mayor Gary Doty cuts the ribbon at the mouth of the brand-new, 1,480-foot–long Leif Erickson Tunnel on Interstate 35. With the opening of the tunnel, that highway—which stretches 1,593 miles, from Mexico all the way to Canada—was finished at last. As a result, the federal government announced, the Interstate Highway System itself was 99.7 percent complete.
In 1958, the Minnesota Highway Department proposed a highway, to be paid for with federal interstate highway funds, right through the middle of downtown Duluth. It would be elevated and run right along the Lake Superior shoreline; to build it, many downtown buildings, not to mention pedestrian access to the waterfront, would be eliminated. It would, the mayor said, be “a face-lifter and a solution to Duluth’s downtown traffic problems.”
But by the 1960s, freeways in cities across the country were growing less popular every year. Opponents argued that they destroyed homes and businesses, eviscerated poor neighborhoods and made traffic congestion worse, not better. In Duluth, anti-road activists geared up for a fight. In 1970, a group called Citizens for Integrating Highways and the Environment began to argue that the waterfront was the city’s biggest asset and that putting a huge expressway between it and downtown was a terrible idea. Meanwhile, a group called Stop the Freeway mobilized to do just that.
Highway officials came up with a compromise: They would keep the road, but they would put it underground instead of on stilts and they would build a lakefront park on its lid. This “cut-and-cover” plan turned out to be a smashing success. The $220 million tunnel kept the disruption of the road to a minimum and provided city residents and tourists with an extremely pleasant place to go and relax. The month it opened, the tunnel won an Excellence in Highway Design Award from the Federal Highway Administration. “People who once adamantly opposed the downtown freeway,” Lake Superior Magazineexplained, “are now some of the same people who are responsible for its aesthetic appeal. Likewise, those who insisted that the freeway could be built in no other place in Duluth admit that citizen concern forced an admiral design that might not otherwise have been considered.” A spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation summed it up: “The great thing is that this… was Duluthians deciding what was best for Duluth and then all working together to make it happen.”