Boston's Highway That Went Nowhere: Lessons from the Inner Belt Fight, 40 Years Later
In the 1950s and 1960s, as Boston was busy razing the West End and plunging ahead with urban renewal, transportation planners were pushing a highway known as the Inner Belt, an 8-lane bypass allowing drivers to avoid a short stretch of Interstate 93, the Central Artery, through downtown.
There was already one beltway – Route 128 – but that highway was a generous loop from Dedham south of Boston to Wellesley and on up to Lynnfield and Gloucester on the North Shore. Entirely inadequate for the age of the automobile, the planners said.
They envisioned a beltway much more close-in, with interchanges sprinkled throughout its run from just south of downtown Boston through Roxbury, Fenway, part of Brookline, across the Charles River at the Boston University bridge, through the heart of Cambridge at Central Square, and finally rejoining I-93 north of downtown, in Somerville.
The proposed interchange between I-95 and the planned Inner Belt. Courtesy: Cambridge Historical Society
Like a kid with crayons filling the vacuum of a blank page, the planners sketched in all kinds of additional feeder roads and highway extensions — spokes for the wheel — notably Route 2 north of the Charles River and the Southwest Expressway south of it. Hundreds of homes would need to be razed for the concrete and steel to slice through the urban fabric.
The people of Boston would have none of it. Then Governor Francis W. Sargent brought a halt to all those grand plans, and in a nimble move, had a deputy, Alan Altshuler, help get a law passed allowing federal funds earmarked for highways to be used instead for transit. Money for the Inner Belt was thus redirected for the extension of the Red Line to Alewife, station modernization, and ultimately the relocation of the Orange Line under what is now a park where the Southwest Corridor (I-95) was supposed to be. Studies also began on turning the Inner Belt alignment into a transit route known as the Urban Ring.
Governor Francis W. Sargent on the steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston after he was sworn in, talking with protestors against the Inner Belt. Courtesy: Cambridge Historical Society
All this occurred about 40 years ago, prompting a look back recently by many who were either in the grassroots insurrection or in government at the time,. And something about this story truly resonates. The Cambridge Historical Society held three panels on the Inner Belt recently, one of which I had the honor of participating in, and so many people signed up to attend a larger hall was required.
It could be that the whole idea was so bizarre – the disruption, the destruction, the utter change to the urban character of the area, as unthinkable today as a 10-lane elevated freeway, the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, roaring down Broome Street in SoHo. The passion of the protestors was also vividly rewarded; as one member of the audience put it, “The people won.” The same was true where the other freeway revolts occurred, from San Francisco to Baltimore.
But the legacy of the Inner Belt story is complicated. The 21st century city requires a surge of badly needed infrastructure – not sprawl-enabling highways or bridges to nowhere, but primarily transit. Yet the citizenry is so fixated on killing bad ideas like the Inner Belt, greener infrastructure doesn’t stand a chance.
In California, the high-speed rail corridor along the CalTrains route has been stiffly greeted by Palo Alto residents who say, very clearly: not in my backyard. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had public support for nixing the Access to the Regions Core (ARC) tunnel under the Hudson River, on the basis that it would cost too much (though there's now some evidence he may have inflated many numbers). Light rail and multi-modal boulevards are routinely greeted with concerns about parking and congestion and increased density in established urban neighborhoods.
Planning for key urban infrastructure has been promoted by various groups, such as America 2050 and Building America’s Future and Transportation for America. They’re trying to figure out a sensible framework, whether changes in the gas tax or an infrastructure bank, instituting a system of value capture to pay for infrastructure, or a “fix it first” policy for existing bridges and roads.
But at the level of the metropolitan region, the infrastructure of the post-carbon era continues to face a fundamental cultural challenge. Skepticism and paralysis might be overcome by better communication by planners – with better transparency and data and scenario planning models. Yet with the memory so fresh of what might have been in Boston – there’s a ghost ramp to this day on I-93 in Somerville, where the Inner Belt would have begun its journey, and the Massachusetts Avenue connector and Melnea Cass Boulevard are well-used, in the footprint of the planned highway – something else needs to happen. Today’s transportation planners have to make the case that they really know what they’re doing this time.
Top image: A park the proposed Inner Belt would have cut through. Courtesy: Cambridge Historical Society.