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Interstate Project of the Month
March - Interstate 94

Interstate 94 transforms life, landscape in central Minnesota

Wheel tracks etched into the ground by the oxcart trains that once crossed the state remain barely visible in a few locations near St. Cloud.

The most lasting legacy of the oxcart trails, however, pulses with sound, speed and constant movement—Interstate 94.

The freeway largely follows one of the trails used to move goods overland from the Mississippi River in St. Paul to Pembina in what is now North Dakota.

Work first began on Interstate 94 in Minnesota in Moorhead. The first projects included building a new interstate bridge between Minnesota and North Dakota at Moorhead and the I-94/Hwy 75 interchange.
Photo courtesy of retiree Willard Handegard

Construction started on I-94 in the late 1950s to create a safe, reliable and quick route for truck traffic and motorists. The new freeway transformed the region. St. Cloud, for example, emerged as a regional trade center. Quick access to the Twin Cities metro area sparked explosive growth in Sherburne County. The once mainly rural neighbor to the Twin Cities became an extension of it as business and residential development boomed along the corridor.

Residents along the freeway corridor became closer to business, educational, cultural, medical and other resources. The new freeway also made access to cabins and resorts in northwestern Minnesota faster and easier for Twin Cities area residents.

Construction of the freeway from Fargo-Moorhead to St. Paul was completed in the 1970s. The final section of the freeway in Minnesota, an 11-mile segment between Lakeland and Hwy 120 (Century Avenue) east of St. Paul was opened in 1987.

Interstate 94 extends about 260 miles in Minnesota between its borders with North Dakota and Wisconsin. The entire route reaches from Port Huron, Mich., to Billings, Mont., a distance of 1,585 miles.

Now an integral part of the region it changed, I-94 is a product of the vision for the interstate system, ample federal funding, intense planning and hard work by the freeway’s designers and builders.

Along with constructing the route itself, many people first involved with I-94 built skills, attitudes and reputations that led to subsequent success in business or as career MnDOT employees.

The people behind the projects

St. Cloud’s Mickey Klasen started working on I-94 in 1965 after serving in the U.S. Army. He first performed administrative chores in the construction field office at Sauk Centre, then moved into the field as an inspector. Klasen worked on grading and paving between Sauk Centre and Osakis.

Richard (Dick) Braun, a former MnDOT commissioner, surveys work under way during construction of Interstate 94 in Minneapolis. MnDOT photo

His duties moved as the project progressed, including bridge inspection responsibilities in the Monticello area.

Klasen also inspected work done to build several rest areas along the new freeway route.

Jim Labo’s engineering career with MnDOT also took root on the I-94 project. He served as a project engineer for the section between Avon and Albany and the Big Spunk, Fuller Lake and Enfield rest areas.

He now serves as the resident engineer at St. Cloud

Labo said the work was intense, with good cooperation between MnDOT and the project’s contractors.

“We talk about fast-tracking projects now,” he said, “but when we were building I-94, we had a bituminous plant that could put out 750 tons of asphalt an hour, enough to pave a mile of two 12-foot lanes an inch deep in one hour.”

Like Klasen and Labo, Baxter’s Tony Kempenich also started his MnDOT career working on I-94. The Little Falls native started on the project in the summer of 1976 while attending what is now the St. Cloud Area Vocational and Technical College.

Now the District 3 materials engineer, Kempenich credits his work on the freeway as a major building block of his career.

From the Big Apple to the Big Prairie Chicken: Ceremonies were held in 1968 in the city of Rothsay in Ottertail County to celebrate its interstate highway connection with New York via a recently completed section of I-94. The late Frank Pawlak, then district engineer at Detroit Lakes, holds a sign at right. Rothsay’s landmark is a 40-foot-high replica of the prairie chicken easily visible from the freeway. MnDOT photo archive.

“We learned a lot back then—working with contractors, dodging bulldozers and doing things by the seat of our pants,” he said.

Kempenich applied his course work in municipal engineering to inspecting bridges and projects such as the I-94/Stearns County Road 75 interchange at St. Augusta.

He said bridge building was particularly demanding.

Inspectors often spent days monitoring concrete production at batch plants and worked the same nights pouring high-density concrete bridge decks. The work was done at night, he said, because the concrete mix needed high humidity and lower temperatures to set and cure properly.

After working on the I-94 project, Kempenich earned a degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota. Later, Kempenich received a scholarship from the FHWA to earn his degree in civil engineering from the U of M.

Interstate 94 branches off to include research, innovation

The mainline of Interstate 94 extends from the state’s border with Wisconsin on the St. Croix River to Minnesota’s western border where it crosses the Red River of the North into North Dakota. It connects cities that include Moorhead, Fergus Falls, Alexandria, St. Cloud, Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The 260-mile mainline route, however, is not the whole story.

MnDOT's Ken Jensen (at left) and Bob LaVone test densities in the concrete used to build a bridge on Interstate 394 during the spring of 1989. MnDOT Photo

Interstate 94 also includes the I-694/I-494 ring around the core of the Twin Cities metro area and I-394 between Minneapolis and its western suburbs.

The interstate ring was built to promote greater mobility and reduce congestion within the rapidly growing Twin Cities area. Its construction includes a complex web of bridges and interchanges that allow many motorists to leave the I-94 system only briefly to reach their destinations.

Interstate 394 was designed with a section of the roadway featuring reversible high-occupancy vehicle lanes whose traffic direction changes to meet peak traffic flow needs. In 2005, I-394 was further refined to allow tolling operations on the HOV lanes, another measure to for reducing traffic congestion on the busy corridor.

About 35 miles west of Minneapolis, the Minnesota Road Research project uses a 3.5-mile section of the freeway’s mainline as a laboratory to test different pavement designs under actual traffic and weather conditions.

Data from the research help engineers worldwide to design pavements that can withstand heavy traffic and extremes in temperatures.

Willard “Willie” Handegard came to work at MnDOT as a very young man in 1952. He served as a laborer, the “chain man,” on a survey crew. After years of field work and an intensive period of training, Handegard was promoted to surveyor in 1957.

One year later, he became a survey crew chief. Late in the summer of 1958, Handegard began work on three Hwy 75 bridges that would span one of the first sections of I-94 to be built in Minnesota at Moorhead.

Retiree Willard "Willie" Handegard pages through the original plan sheets for the interstate system in Minnesota.
Photo by Craig Wilkins

The Hwy 75 bridges, the Hwy 75 interchange with I-94 and the subsequent work on the I-94 mainline did not lack challenges.

Handegard said the soils in the region, the Red River Valley, are mainly clay, making roadwork difficult.

“When the soil was wet, it was greasy; and when it dried, it was as hard as concrete,” he said. “When it was dry we had to wet it, when it was wet we had to aerate it.”

The slippery clay soils contributed to the collapse of an embankment built to temporarily detour Great Northern rail traffic around an underpass being built near Moorhead.

“We had a severe thunderstorm,” Handegard said. “The embankment gave way and the train, one engine and flatcars carrying railroad maintenance equipment, tipped over and slid into the underpass.”

No one was hurt in the incident, but Handegard said it took about a week for the railroad to extricate its engine, cars and equipment from the underpass.

Undeterred, Handegard, his fellow workers and project workers made steady progress across the flat expanses of the region, completing District 4’s section of I-94 in 1974.

Building the interstate system included a few pitfalls. Repair crews pull the engine and cars of a Great Northern Railroad work train from an excavation during the construction of a rail underpass near Moorhead. Earthworks that carried a temporary rail detour collapsed during heavy rains. No injuries resulted.
Photo by retiree John Moran

In 1979, Handegard transferred to the Central Office to work in the Utility Agreements Section. He worked on several projects, including another interstate—I-394.

After 42 years in the field and the Central Office, Handegard ended his MnDOT career when he retired in 1994.

Although it’s been more than 30 years since his role in building I-94 ended, Handegard’s pride in his crew’s contribution is undiminished.

In fact, he notes, his survey crew placed the first slope stakes for I-94 in District 4 and pounded the last slope stakes for the I-94 section between Rothsay and Barnesville.

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