It’s a decision that transformed and shaped modern Boston, an early pivot from the assumed primacy of the automobile and toward public transportation, while sparing multiple neighborhoods from being carved up.
Fifty years ago last week, Governor Francis W. Sargent killed the Southwest Expressway, an 8-mile extension of Interstate 95 from Canton to the South End.
The Southwest Expressway threatened to displace thousands and bisect neighborhoods, forever altering their character and compounding air pollution problems. Advocates and government officials from the time said the decision helped Boston maintain its feel, that it preserved an inner core of neighborhoods that the highway would have been irreversibly sliced up.
Experts also see it as a domino that set in motion many important infrastructure projects that define Boston today, including a third harbor crossing that would ultimately become a reality in the Ted Williams Tunnel.
“The sense that much of Boston has of being a historic city with a very dense downtown fabric would have been destroyed,” said Alan A. Altshuler, who was state transportation secretary at the time. “It would have been much more like the cities of the Midwest . . . where everywhere you look there are expressways.”
Indeed, it’s hard to overstate the impact that Sargent’s decision had on modern Greater Boston. Today, part of the proposed highway-that-never-was is the Southwest Corridor Park, a treasured 4-mile greenway that stretches from the Back Bay to Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain. The old elevated Orange Line along Washington Street was torn down and relocated to the former highway corridor, which led to the renewal of neighborhoods in the South End and Jamaica Plain.
Years later, Sargent, a moderate Yankee Republican, would be hailed as a “transportation visionary” for setting the framework for how government thinks about transit and for prioritizing citizen participation in transportation planning.
In rejecting the expressway, Sargent’s vision for the future of transportation in Massachusetts also contained the seeds of other big future capital projects that are now integral to the region’s transportation infrastructure, including putting the Central Artery underground and extending Interstate 90 to the Seaport.
The roots of the Southwest Expressway initiative can be traced to a 1948 master highway plan for the region, which was bolstered by federal legislation in 1956 to have the federal government, not the state, shoulder the brunt of the cost.
The defeat of the expressway followed intense local, grass-roots opposition to the proposed road. One “People Before Highways” rally on Boston Common in 1969 brought together 2,000 demonstrators. According to the South End Historical Society, the diverse crowd included “city councilors, uniformed police and firemen, working-class white and [Black residents], mothers with kids, church parishioners, and students.”
Still, Sargent faced significant political headwinds. The automobile and gasoline lobbies and organized labor all supported the project. The construction industry was reeling from double-digit unemployment at the time and massive highway projects offered much-needed jobs. And the initiative had little direct financial cost to Massachusetts, since the federal government would pay for 90 percent of costs to build highways.
Sargent, who died in 1998, seemed to be well aware of the gravity of his decision. A New York Times obituary noted that he referred to his transit choices as “his own Vietnam.”
And a half-century ago, Sargent’s decision was so momentous that it warranted a televised address to state residents.
“The old system has imprisoned us,” he said, later adding, “We are fortunate to have a chance to go a new way.”
The previous year, Sargent canceled most of another urban highway project known as the Inner Belt, a 10-mile, eight-lane roadway that would have run from Charlestown through Somerville, Cambridge, Brookline, Fenway, Roxbury, and the South End. With the Massachusetts Turnpike already plowing through the center of the city, urban Boston would have been crisscrossed by fat ribbons of asphalt.
Instead, with his announcement about the Southwest Expressway, Sargent mothballed the entirety of the Inner Belt project.
“The entire city got transformed once you began to stop those roads and began to build up communities and have balanced transportation,” said Al Kramer, who was Sargent’s chief policy adviser, during a recent phone interview.
Not everyone avoided displacement. More than 500 homes and businesses were razed in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and the South End, and hundreds of acres were cleared for the highway in the years before Sargent nixed the project. But half a century later, the consensus is that Boston dodged an even greater catastrophe by ultimately valuing people and communities over cars and highways.
Jack Wofford, who served as the director of the Boston Transportation Planning Review in the early 1970s, said Sargent did not want to repeat the problems of the Southeast Expressway, “with people sitting in their cars and waiting and waiting.” Notably, the traffic congestion persists today despite the completion of the Big Dig.
According to Wofford, Sargent realized that “you don’t just build more and more highways to meet more and more automobile demand, because if you do that you’re just going to produce more demand.”
Altshuler, the former transportation secretary, said the Southwest Expressway would have had a destructive effect on the environment and local housing stock, and encouraged more commuters to drive, and probably further stimulated suburbanization of the region.
Karilyn Crockett, an MIT professor who wrote a book on the grass-roots movement to stop expansion of the highways in Boston, said Sargent’s about-face — he had previously been pro-highway and served as state’s head of public works — was a “stunner,” something many advocates who opposed the project at the time did not think possible.
Indeed, a South End resident at the time who was opposed to the expressway, Kenneth Kruckemeyer, said recently, “I don’t think any of us thought we were actually going to win.”
Underpinning the idea of the expressway at the time was the belief that interstates were key to a city’s survival, and “people of any worth would live in the suburbs” and commute into a full of offices, said Kruckemeyer, now a transportation strategist.
The local anti-highway movement, Crockett said, also helped forge part of a generation of local civic leaders, including Fred Salvucci, who became a dominant figure in shaping the area as Massachusetts transportation secretary, and Gloria Fox, who would serve about 30 years as a state representative.
“The fight to stop the Inner Belt and the Southwest Expressway fundamentally changed the way we think about the politics of transportation and who and what can be sacrificed in the name of road building,” Crockett said.
Salvucci said Sargent’s decision to shift toward public transit was courageous because it was not clear if the state would receive federal funding to make that change a reality.
“Sargent was going to wear that loss,” he said.
Instead, Sargent succeeded in lobbying for a change in federal transportation law that meant states could use money previously designated for highway projects for significant public transit initiatives, and eventually such funding would go toward Red Line extensions, MBTA equipment replacement, and commuter rail upgrades.
In hindsight, the expressway would have meant more cars in the center of Boston, Salvucci said, where “the system was already gridlocked.”
“It’s just incredible what he did,” he said of Sargent’s decision.
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.