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The Roads Not Taken

How one powerful choice made all the difference.

In November 1972, an improbable campaign to stop a juggernaut of highways from afflicting Greater Boston reached its culmination. Viewed from today, that victory, which was several years in the making, seems preordained. But consider the landscape of the time:

The state’s post–World War II plans, developed as part of the new federal Interstate Highway System, were calling for radial highways into Boston and a circumferential highway well inside the existing Route 128. Major business leaders, contractors, and labor unions were supporting these projects as valuable catalysts for the region’s weak economy. The growing legions of motorists, delighting in the open road, were thrilled by the prospect. The state’s powerful Department of Public Works (DPW) had strong relationships with key legislators on Beacon Hill. The federal government was offering up to 90 cents for every transportation dime the state spent—but only if it spent the money on interstate highways. It is hardly surprising that every major candidate for governor throughout the 1950s and ’60s supported the planned roads.

Arrayed against these forces was a disparate group of local neighbors of modest means and influence. The earliest fights involved the proposed Inner Belt (I-695), which would have passed through parts of Cambridge, Boston, Brookline, and Somerville and taken about 3,800 homes and acres of parkland. Similar controversies soon engulfed other planned roads, notably the Southwest Expressway (I-95 South)—which would have passed through the Fowl Meadow Reservation in Milton, Canton, and Boston and continued through parts of Hyde Park, Roslindale, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain—and an extension of Route 2 through Cambridge and Somerville. Fights also broke out over the Northeast Expressway (I-95 North), which would have passed through Lynn Woods and several North Shore cities, and over a Third Harbor Tunnel that would surface in East Boston near Logan Airport.

Highway foes were a remarkable mix: longtime, working-class white and black residents of affected neighborhoods; younger, well-educated newcomers who had been active in the civil rights and anti-war movements; liberal academics; and suburban environmentalists. Illustratively, key leaders included Father Paul McManus, a Catholic priest who served in Cambridge and then Mattapan; Chuck Turner, a community activist in Roxbury; James Morey, an engineer who had left a defense-industry job to become a community organizer; and Fred Salvucci, a transportation engineer then working for the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Although opponents initially focused on individual projects, over time they began to make common cause. Their strategy also shifted from trying to make the roads more palatable, perhaps putting them in trenches partially covered with large decks, to trying to cancel them outright and build more transit instead.

Elected officials began responding to anti-highway forces. Boston mayor Kevin White, who had been elected in 1967, began to question the roads—a position encouraged by Barney Frank, then a senior aide to White. So did a few state legislators, led by Michael Dukakis, who represented Brookline. Congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the House majority leader whose district included Cambridge, also sided with opponents.

Meanwhile, however, the DPW plowed ahead, building I-93 in Somerville and taking property for the Southwest Corridor, ultimately clearing more than 150 acres of land, including 775 homes, between Forest Hills and Madison Park. To make matters worse for opponents, in early 1969, Governor John Volpe, a former highway contractor who supported the proposed highways, became secretary of transportation in the new Nixon administration. His replacement, Lieutenant Governor Frank Sargent, not only had served as DPW Commissioner in the mid-1960s but also had led successful efforts to repeal a state law giving localities the power to veto highway projects within their borders. However, Sargent also was a long- time conservationist and Albert Kramer, his chief policy adviser, sympathized with the anti-highway coalition.

On Sargent’s inauguration day, White (who was preparing to run against him for governor) called for the withdrawal of the Inner Belt and the Southwest Expressway plans. Two days later, hundreds of anti-highway demonstrators came to the State House. Sargent spoke to the crowd and, after meeting privately with some of them, announced that the projects would not proceed until his staff reviewed them.

Several months later, Sargent appointed a task force to review the highway plans, to be chaired by MIT professor Alan Altshuler. In January 1970, the task force reported that highway planning had become a “pathological” process, adding, “to be blunt, we perceive a great mindless system charging ahead. The interstate highways within Route 128 will be built as planned... not because they are the best public investment—or even the best highway investment—for the money. They will be built solely because they involve ten-cent dollars from the state standpoint.”

The task force urged Sargent to halt work on controversial expressways and to order a comprehen- sive review of the region’s transportation needs. A month later, Sargent accepted these recommendations, explaining in a February 1970 statewide television address, “Nearly everyone was sure that highways were the only answer to transportation problems for years to come. But we were wrong.”

After the speech, Altshuler and John Wofford, a young lawyer who served as the task force’s executive director, began working with a large advisory group to design the promised comprehensive review. The aim, Wofford later explained, was to develop a “wide-open process, carried out in fishbowl style, with extensive involvement of neighborhoods, private interest-based organizations, and local government officials, as well as state agencies.” Officially launched in July 1971 using $3.5 million in federal funding, the Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR) had several notable features:

  • Mandate: Although the roads had been planned since the late 1940s, everything was on the table.
  • Scope: Although trying to look at the region as a whole, the BTPR primarily focused on options within each contested corridor.
  • Involvement: Although the BTPR used many expert consultants, it also actively involved a wide range of concerned citizens in meaningful ways.
  • Criteria: In contrast to the DPW’s singular focus on moving the most people at the least cost, the BTPR assessed projects’ economic, environmental, and social impacts.
  • Product: Rather than producing one program justified in technical terms, the BTPR asked the governor to choose from packages that emphasized different values and political priorities.

Four months after the process began, Sargent accepted the staff’s recommendation to cancel the Inner Belt and the Route 2 extension because they could not be built without unacceptable amounts of disruption; to limit remaining highways inside Route 128 to no more than six lanes; and require that any new cross-harbor tunnel portal be located at Logan Airport.

The BTPR, now under Wofford’s direction and with urban design assistance from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, examined three strategies for meeting mobility needs in the contested corridors, from scaled-down highways to no highways at all. There was little consensus on how to proceed. Business interests pressed for the scaled-down roads. Altshuler, whom Sargent had appointed the state’s secretary of transportation in June 1971, backed managed highways open only to buses, trucks, and emergency vehicles. The anti-highway forces, along with Kramer and Wofford, pushed the no-build approach.

After a period of intense staff debate, in 1972 Sargent endorsed an almost pure no-build strategy that emphasized significant expansions in the region’s transit system as well as a two-lane, special-purpose tunnel from downtown to Logan Airport. He also called for further study of a nascent idea to replace the elevated Central Artery with a depressed facility that would include a train connection between North and South stations. Sargent also endorsed further study of several lower-priority projects, including the Urban Ring, a circumferential transit line that basically followed the route of the abandoned Inner Belt highway, extending the Green Line to Somerville and extending other transit lines to satellite parking facilities on Route 128.

Sargent’s decisions drew national attention and became a model for many other locales. Forty years later, their significance is even more apparent. Physically, the state expanded the MBTA, built the Big Dig, and preserved many vibrant neighborhoods. Subsequent planning processes—in Boston and beyond—all incorporate significant and frequently frustrating requirements for citizen participation and wide-ranging analyses of project impacts. And the controversies that spawned the BTPR produced a generation of leaders who shaped transportation and urban policy in Boston and beyond. The lasting impact created by this combination of projects, policies, and people is a remarkable legacy for what began as a quixotic effort to halt a seemingly unstoppable force.