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May 01, 2012

Lessons from an unbuilt beltway

Inner beltA little over forty years ago, Boston said no to the Inner Belt -- an eight-lane freeway that would have blasted through the urban fabric from south of downtown, through Cambridge, and reconnecting with Interstate 93 north of the city in Somerville. It was the era of urban renewal and auto-centric transportation planning, and the roadways were being sketched out with great zeal -- a Southwest Expressway would bring I-95 to Back Bay, and Route 2 would extend through Cambridge to be another spoke for the wheel. But Republican Governor Francis W. Sargent called it all off.
     He didn't want to lose the federal funding, of course -- and indeed the fear of that prompted many a metropolitan area to plunge ahead with urban freeway construction, its related jobs, and the promise of economic development. Sargent dispatched a top official, Alan Altshuler, now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School and Graduate School of Design, and for a time dean of the GSD, to get a law passed effectively allowing the transfer of funds from highway projects to transit projects. The result was the extension of the Red Line, station modernization, and ultimately the relocation of the Orange Line -- underneath the very corridor where the Southwest Expressway was supposed to run.
    The transition from highway to transit infrastructure is a story that is still unfolding. Indeed, there's an inherent logic in the Inner Belt: its alignment has for years been considered for a circumferential transit route known as the Urban Ring, which would bring thousands of workers to their jobs who now have to go all the way into the central hub of the transit system in downtown Boston, and back out again. That project was never built, either -- in part because of a lingering reticence over the investments and disruption of infrastructure of any kind. Our essay with further reflections on all this appears today at The Atlantic Monthly's online site, The Atlantic Cities.


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