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The ghost of a highway

Posted by Stephen Heuser  November 28, 2012 05:11 PM

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One of the most dramatic episodes in modern Boston history is a story of what didn't happen: the moment in 1972 when an unlikely coalition of neighbors, activists, and a Republican governor succeeded in killing off a massive tangle of interstate highways that would have sliced through the city’s neighborhoods, leveling thousands of houses and carving up Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, the South End, and Cambridgeport.

Forty years later, the design magazine ArchitectureBoston is dedicating an entire issue to the demise of the Inner Belt and Southwest Expressway
scheme, now seen as a turning point for the previously unstoppable march of federal highways across America.

Much of the story is well-known, but there are some surprises in the details. An essay by Alan Altshuler, state transportation secretary at the time and now a professor at Harvard, details a bit of legislative sleight-of-hand that is still paying off: after so forcibly rejecting the highway and the construction money it would have brought, Massachusetts used its Washington clout to ensure that it ended up with $1.46 billion of that federal money anyway.

That's a lot of money, especially in 1972 dollars. We started to wonder: Where did it all go instead? Via email, Altshuler referred us to Fred Salvucci, who succeeded him as transportation secretary. It turns out that the money originally allocated for the interstate was plowed into mass transit instead: extending the Red Line north past Harvard Square; building the Southwest Corridor park; refurbishing the commuter rail system, and even buying subway trains. (The sleight-of-hand was necessary because the money had to come from a different pool of federal cash: "It was a religious matter with the highway lobby that highway dollars not be used directly for transit," said Salvucci.)

So tomorrow morning, when you walk into the Davis Square T stop, or sit on an Orange Line car, you can think of it a different way: It's the ghost of a highway that never was.

Photo by jczart, via Flickr.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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