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The New Highway Revolts

Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog had an important post last week about a wave of grassroots activism against highway expansion projects in the Midwest. These local battles are worth watching as they represent the cutting edge of a growing debate about the future direction of transportation investment in the U.S. – a debate that is more salient than ever given the trends toward declining per-capita driving and shriveling gas tax revenue documented in our recent report, A New Direction.

The original wave of “freeway revolts” of the 1960s and 1970s inspire a certain historical fascination. Looking at the plans for metropolitan freeway networks developed in the 1940s and 1950s, one often reacts with an incredulous, “they wanted to put what? where?” Did folks in power really think it was a good idea to put a 10-lane elevated freeway through Lower Manhattan? Or to bulldoze a good chunk of Cambridge, Mass., for an inner belt highway around Boston?

Here in Boston, the fight over the Inner Belt and Southwest Expressway in the late 1960s and early 1970s resulted in the cancellation of both projects, but not before a significant number of homes and businesses had been cleared from the route – a scar in the heart of the city that has still not fully healed a half-century later. Still, the activists who fought to defend their neighborhoods and the foresighted political leaders who eventually came to share their cause scored some important victories. Today, the path of what would have been the Southwest Expressway is now a rebuilt transit line and linear park with a popular bike trail, and many of the neighborhoods surrounding the corridor are thriving.

Back in those days, objections to highway expansion mainly stemmed from a desire to protect urban neighborhoods from the wrecking ball. That’s still true in some cases today – Schmitt’s article refers to a battle in St. Louis over a proposed highway through an inner ring suburb as well as other projects in which neighborhoods find themselves directly in the line of fire.

But today, the battles over freeway expansion tend to take on a bigger picture character. Increasingly, citizens are coming to recognize that transportation funding is a zero-sum game – the money that is funneled into expanding highways is money that won’t be available for the improvements in public transportation, bicycling, and pedestrian infrastructure that are coming to be recognized as critical pieces of a balanced transportation system and healthy communities.

At the same time, residents of economically struggling, transit-dependent urban neighborhoods – many of which have been deeply affected by the wave of transit cut-backs and fare increases that coincided with the arrival of the recession – are witnessing hundreds of millions of dollars being directed to new highway projects designed to speed suburban commuters through their neighborhoods and wondering what gives.

The debate over future transportation investment in an era of stagnating driving and declining gas tax revenue is an important one – one that is increasingly playing out at the local level. Let’s hope that state and federal decision-makers soon join the debate as well.