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Ripple Effects

Few policy decisions have had as much effect on placemaking as the transportation rethink of the early 1970s in Boston. But the highway moratorium’s influence is still being felt far beyond Route 128. We asked six planners, designers, and activists to trace the echoes.

Following the Money

by Alan Altshuler

Governor Frank Sargent’s decision to stop all highway construction planned inside Route 128 saved Greater Boston neighborhoods, enhanced the city’s core, and spawned the movement to depress the Central Artery — the Big Dig. Less well known, perhaps, is that it also generated nearly $1.5 billion in federal transit aid, which played a critical role in the development of Greater Boston’s mass transit during the decades that followed.

In the course of pursuing a more transit-oriented future for Boston, Sargent found it necessary to pursue an aggressive legislative agenda in Washington, DC. But his federal activism was born largely of desperation. When he announced his expressway moratorium, Massachusetts stood to lose nearly $700 million in federal highway aid — roughly equivalent to $4 billion in today’s dollars — that was available only for interstate highway construction. If that federal financing were lost, Sargent knew it would be a serious blow to the state economy and a cutting weapon for his critics.

There was a precedent, however, for avoiding the loss of funding when a highway segment was canceled. In 1967, Congress had authorized states to replace controversial interstate segments, on a mile-for-mile (not dollar-for-dollar) basis, with other expressway projects. We argued that the federal government itself had contributed to the impasse over expressway construction in Boston, having enacted strong legis-lation requiring citizen participation and environmental reviews for federally aided infrastructure projects and imposing targets for air-pollution control. It was impossible, we maintained, to comply with these new laws while also building the proposed interstates covered by Sargent’s moratorium.

And if the roads were not to be built, we reasoned, the clear need in Massachusetts was for mass transit investment rather than alternative expressways. Thus was born the idea of Interstate Transfer: that states should be permitted in specified circumstances to reprogram funds for alternative mass-transit (or highway) projects.

Getting this idea passed into law involved several years of political pulling and tugging. Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, then majority leader of the US House and a critic of the planned roads, leaned on the chairman of the House Public Works Committee to green-light our proposal. In the Senate, we played on every relationship we could find, no matter how obscure. The upshot was that Interstate Transfer, generally labeled “the Massachusetts provision,” was enacted as part of the Highway Act of 1973, and Massachusetts eventually received $1.46 billion in special grants for mass-transit investment.

Interstate Transfer had a profound effect on the resolution of highway controversies across the country, because it removed the pro-road argument that rejecting an interstate would cost a given community 90 percent in federal reimbursement. In the quarter-century after 1973, federal Interstate Transfer grants totaling $6.83 billion were distributed to 23 metropolitan areas — and 343 Interstate expressway miles were withdrawn.

A Contagion of Good Ideas

by Anthony Flint

A fed-up populace and an awakened government stopped a scythe of highways from slicing through much of Boston, but it was too late for the elevated Central Artery, built from 1951 to 1959. It took another few decades, but some of the same visionaries who turned away from the madness of urban highways — inspired by Jane Jacobs and her defeat of Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway — also pioneered the logical next step: reinventing and dismantling the disruptive downtown highways that were built.

The $16 billion Big Dig carries all kinds of baggage these days, from cost overruns to design flaws and the continuing need to replace key components, such as lighting. The project’s heart was in the right place, however. The Rose F. Kennedy Greenway now graces the corridor. Some in current generations have no idea the other Green Monster was ever there.

It was an audacious vision from the start, but prescient: the rest of the nation is only now catching up. Tearing down urban freeways has become a standard part of the urban planning playbook for American cities, from Milwaukee (Park West) to New Orleans (Claiborne Expressway), and from New York City (Sheridan Expressway) to Seattle (Alaskan Way Viaduct).

In most locations, the Big Dig model is far too expensive. New York City tried something similar with Westway — and, indeed, Boston effectively grabbed some federal funding for that project once New York gave up on submerging its highway. So in recent years, cities have been engaged in a sort of Big Dig without the Big Dig: converting elevated freeways and long off-ramps and connectors to multimodal, pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban boulevards.

The honor of the very first execution of such a project goes to Portland, Oregon, where Governor Tom McCall turned Harbor Drive into Waterfront Park beginning in 1974. The 1989 earthquake in San Francisco precipitated the glorious Embarcadero. Seattle has been immersed in a long and arduous debate about the looming and similarly earthquake-prone Alaskan Way Viaduct. Yet the idea of getting rid of an urban-renewal-era freeway and replacing it with a boulevard is no longer outrageous.

It is almost with some pity, like the older brother who has already been through high school, that Bostonians read news that Philadelphia is just now probing a similar transformation of I-95 along that city’s waterfront. Been there, done that — and we’re sorry, sort of, that we took all the money. What can we say: We were early adopters in correcting the mistakes of the past.

Birth of an Activist

by Ann Hershfang

The victory of the anti-highway movement — its energy, strategizing, sense of ownership and power — spawned many public-service careers, including the last 38 years of mine.

My trajectory had been traditional for the era — editor, teacher, wife — when in 1965 my husband and I bought at auction a boarded-up house on a short block in Boston’s South End. In 1969, after three-plus exhausting years of stripping and painting, I attended a presentation by the advocacy group Urban Planning Aid about highway plans for the end of our street, only six houses away, in what was then the Penn Central rail corridor. The plan was to end rail service at Forest Hills and replace it with eight lanes of an I-95 extension and a four-lane South End Bypass road with three Orange Line tracks, bringing us 900-plus trains and 40,000 cars each day.

Forty-four houses would be taken. On/off ramps at West Newton and Dartmouth streets would spew traffic into and across the South End. Volunteers were solicited. My hand shot up.

Four of us became the Tubman Area Planning Council. With our focus on the Bypass, we collaborated with like-minded people from widely differing communities through the Greater Boston Committee on the Transportation Crisis. The committee’s efforts to persuade then-mayor Kevin White to oppose the Bypass were fruitless — until he bargained for three Ward 4 Democratic Committee votes in his 1970 quest to become governor. So much for all our letters, petitions, demonstrations, and meetings!

On November 30, 1972, frozen with hope and suspense, we watched the television as Governor Frank Sargent killed the plans — and one reason he gave was that the Mayor wouldn’t build the Bypass. We exploded with joy.

The experience changed my life. It brought me into the public sphere and gave me colleagues, awareness, exposure, and public-speaking experience. In 1974, Sargent appointed me to the Massachusetts Port Authority board, the first woman on any state transportation board. We fired Edward J. King as Massport’s executive director, discarded the agency’s traditional hostility to its East Boston and Winthrop neighbors, and voted the most progressive masterplan and policies anywhere: noise-proofing, flight-path changes and curfews, no expansion of airport boundaries. We gave Belle Isle Marsh to the state as conservation land; donated millions to the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center; and paid a first, large Payment in Lieu of Taxes to the City of Boston. These programs reflected a new understanding of the role of transportation in urban environments.

The 1980s brought more influential positions in transportation policy. As state undersecretary of transportation, my portfolio was broad: regional transit and airports, elderly and disabled services, starting the Hingham ferry and commuter trains to Providence, open- space purchases, the occasional ride in the state helicopter! In 1988, Governor Michael Dukakis appointed me to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board, where I developed a landscape-management program. There, I coordinated the installation of a plaque outside the Roxbury Crossing Orange Line MBTA station to celebrate the anti-highway movement. The names of 166 participants are inscribed across the top.

Beginning With “No,” Getting to “Yes”

by Fred Salvucci

One of the many remarkable things about the anti-highway coalition was that, beginning with a most appropriate “No” to interstate highways that would have devastated neighborhoods and open spaces from Milton to Cambridge to Lynn, it also led to a resounding “Yes” to improved and expanded transit and commuter rail in the Boston metropolitan area.

Contrary to the conventional view, the shift of transportation policy away from destructive highways benefited not just Greater Boston but a wide swath of the state, establishing 13 regional transit authorities that stabilized and improved public transportation from Fall River–New Bedford to Pittsfield and North Adams. Responsible highway construction that spared urban neighborhoods helped revitalize the economies of communities like Worcester (I-190), and Lowell and Taunton (I-495).

Remarkable leadership, both outside and inside the government, made this possible. Early elected leaders included Mike Dukakis, then a state representative from Brookline, who fought against the Inner Belt but also argued for focusing highway resources outside Boston, to weave cities like Worcester, Lawrence, and Taunton into the region’s economy. “Outsiders” such as Father Frederick McManus, a low-key but inspiring parish priest from Cambridge who had the courage to say “no” to the Inner Belt — and the skill to bring Richard Cardinal Cushing to the community side in the fight — also had the wisdom to heed the advice of “insiders” like Justin Gray of the Cambridge city government. Father Tom Corrigan led the effort to knit together urban activists from Jamaica Plain, Somerville, the South End, and East Boston, with League of Women Voters chairwoman Ann Hershfang, and suburban advocates of wetland protection and commuter rail, like George Bailey of Sharon and Elizabeth Houghton of Milton.

With the advice of insiders like Barney Frank, Al Kramer, and Guy Rosmarin, the coalition became multi-ethnic and ecumenical, which allowed political leaders such as Mayor Kevin White to advocate forcefully and Governor Frank Sargent to change his position, stop the urban highways, and shift priority to transit.

Insiders like Alan Altshuler implemented the new policy brilliantly, securing legislation to reorganize the MBTA and establish the regional transit authorities, change federal law and the Massachusetts state constitution to allow the gas tax to be used for transit as well as highways, relocate the Orange line, provide the Orange and Blue lines with new equipment, and acquire and refurbish the commuter-rail network. Tony Pangaro managed the rebirth of the Southwest Corridor into a living, breathing neighborhood, paid for with the money that would have gone into the Inner Belt and Southwest Expressway.

“Outside” leaders successfully collaborated with “insiders” to produce the base of political support that both encouraged and allowed the political leaders to deliver. Today, open-space lovers who enjoy the Lynn Woods, the Milton Fowl Meadow, the Boston Fens, Rose F. Kennedy Greenway, and the Southwest Corridor park system; commuter-rail riders from Needham and other suburbs; economic developers from Kendall Square and the South Boston Waterfront to Quincy and Lowell and Worcester all have benefited from that unprecedented leadership.

Crossing Boundaries

by David Lee FAIA

Between 1966 and 1969, more than 100 acres of land was cleared in the Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighbor-hoods in anticipation of an eight-lane highway and an Inner Beltway through a portion of Olmsted’s historic Emerald Necklace. Fortunately, the 1960s also was a time when many were beginning to challenge ill-conceived urban-renewal and highway projects that were destroying city neighborhoods with little regard for the views of local residents.

In Boston, progressive academics, planners, and architects began working directly with residents who were unhappy with the toll the demolition was taking on their neighborhoods. In the background, a nascent anti-busing movement was heightening racial tensions throughout the city.

It was into this complex social and political web that the Stop Highway I-95 movement emerged. Across racial and ethnic boundaries, a coalition began to form with the intention of stopping further highway clearance. Through effective community organizing and savvy media strategies, they got the attention of politicians.

A diverse group arrayed against the highway persuaded then-governor Frank Sargent to reconsider all of the highway and transportation initiatives planned inside Route 128. The highway option was taken off the table, and the Southwest Corridor “Transit” Project was born.

Quickly a new planning paradigm emerged. This was not a transportation project principally governed by engineering expediency. This was something new; this was a community development project with a transportation component. Once everyone began to view the project through that lens, land-use planning, landscape architecture, and urban-design considerations gained equal footing. This was reinforced by the MBTA’s Southwest Corridor Project office, which managed one of the most elaborate community participation efforts in the history of the state.

In the 25 years since rail service began — with transit, commuter rail, and Amtrak trains running in a combination of open boat sections and under landscaped decks — this once-desolate scar in the city’s fabric has evolved as a welcoming place to live, work, study, and play. The four-mile linear park that runs from the Back Bay/South End station to Forest Hills station connects a series of active and passive spaces including tot lots, playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts, and a well-used bike path, all shared across boundaries of age, race, and ethnicity. The section of the park between Massachusetts Avenue and Dartmouth Street is a hidden green gem well worth the walk.

Parcels on either side of the corridor that languished in the years of uncertainty about the highway have become fertile opportunities for community-development corporations. Other projects along the armature of the corridor include Roxbury Community College, the Reggie Lewis Track, the Boston Police Headquarters, and Northeastern University’s new international student dormitory.

The Southwest Corridor is an unfolding success that endures as a tribute to passionate residents, creative designers, and enlightened public officials who managed to work collaboratively — and at a troubled time — to find common ground where little existed before.

Inspired Action, From Boston to Brazil

by Ken Kruckemeyer AIA

Can the lessons learned in Boston 40 years ago — that poor, urban neighborhoods can be made to thrive through inspired local development with support from government, public agencies, and private business — be applied worldwide?

Many people in the sprawling São Paulo neighbor-hood of Ermelino Matarazzo dream of a new expressway or a subway line that would speed them to city necessities that are now two or three hours away. Both are unlikely, as this neighborhood — grown from a small village to more than 200,000 residents — receives little attention from a government, and from private utilities, that concentrate their energies in the wealthier and more politically powerful central areas of Brazil’s largest city.

So in August of this year, a small group of profess-ionals who met through the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design began collaborating with local colleagues and neighborhood residents to develop a different vision. A series of workshops focused on the potential of immediate, local action that could improve daily life. What can be done that makes the neighborhood itself better able to satisfy everyday needs?

The discussion focused on local challenges — how to make a hilly neighborhood more walkable, to improve connectivity and safety for bicyclists, and to increase the effectiveness of bus service — and on changes that people themselves might accomplish.

Many streets of this neighborhood are quite steep, for example, and because sidewalks are frequently irregular, most people and anything with wheels use the street. A rendering by one of our colleagues showing a safety zone for pedestrians — created by painting the surface and moving some house plants out into the street — got people thinking. What could they do to rethink the meaning of the “public right-of-way?” Wouldn’t the neighborhood stores, the clinic, and the school all seem much closer and more accessible if everyone could walk safely in the street?

The specifics are yet to be figured out, but more than 100 residents of Ermelino Matarazzo have signed up and are now thinking and talking about how to instigate change in their neighborhood.

In Boston, this belief in the viability of urban neighborhoods was the essence of what community activists brought to the table in our interaction with the professionals of the Boston Transportation Planning Review. Today Boston has little of the dysfunction characteristic of many American cities: miles of parking lots and vacant land separating the core from the suburbs.

In recent years, many in government seem to have lost some of this belief in the importance of people and neighborhoods; preferring, instead, to direct their efforts toward corporations and the politically and financially powerful. Yet at the grassroots level, attention to the details that make life more productive, safer, and delightful is gaining steam. Creating the opportunity for neighborhoods such as Mattapan or Everett, (or Ermelino Matarazzo) to thrive means not only better mobility to destinations in the rest of the city but also improved accessibility within the neighborhood. This is how an entire metropolitan area becomes well educated, healthy, and economically viable.