Cambridge Gets a Reprieve, But the Belt Still Menaces
The City's ever-resilient fight against the proposed Inner Belt highway has bounced all the way from Cambridge to Washington and back during the past few months. The Belt, which only last spring seemed a sure thing, has now been put on the shelf again.
The twenty-year struggle against the eight-lane highway appeared lost last May, after the Massachusetts Department of Public Works announced its final choice of a route for the Cambridge link of the Belt--Brookline-Elm. Residents of the City had opposed any Belt route through Cambridge, but this route--which would pass near Central Square and displace some 1500 families--had always aroused the most anger.
Few observers then held out much hope for the Belt foes, since the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads usually approves such state recommendations automatically. The opponents of the Belt, however, vowed to carry the fight to Washington in an effort to get the BPR to over-rule the state's decision. Under the motto "Cam-is NOT a highway," over 100 of them journeyed to Washington in late May to meet with Federal Roads Commissioner Lowell K. Bridwell, Senators Kennedy and Brooke, and their representative, Thomas P. O'Neill (D. Gamb.). They were received in a friendly, but non-committal way.
Only last month were their efforts rewarded. In a closed-door meeting with City officials, Bridwell agreed to postpone any immediate decision on the Belt in order to give the City time to "offset the mountain of evidence" showing a need for the road. He agreed to finance--at least in part--a re-study of the Belt by independent consultants. A City-appointed overseeing committee would supervise the study.
Cambridge Mayor Daniel J. Hayes Jr. then named two of Harvard's top urban experts--Daniel P. Moynihan, director of the Joint Center for Urban Studies and William W. Nash '50, associate professor of City Planning--to head the overseeing committee. Other Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors are now being recruited by the City to fill the committee's roster.
On the face of it, the BPR's decision to allow the new study was highly unusual. The Bureau has been well aware of the Belt plan ever since it was first proposed in 1948. The road had been frequently reviewed at the state level, until foe and friend alike lost count of the number of studies. The DPW itself, following an election-time request of Governor John A. Volpe, re-studied the Belt prior to its decision last May.
Moynihan said that the BPR's decision was due to the fact that "There's a new crew of highway people in Washington; they want to apply present-day standards, not those of 1948, to the Inner Belt." He felt that federal highway planners now want to put more emphasis on the social effects of highways on the cities through which they pass. Nash agreed with that analysis and added that many of the assumptions backing the Inner Belt are now outmoded. In 1948, it was supposed that Boston would grow--both in population and employment--at a faster rate than it actually has. The Massachusetts Turnpike extension into Boston has already taken some of the pressure off downtown Boston's crowded Central Artery--a function which is the Inner Belt's raison d'etre.
City officials, on the other hand, feel that it was their continuing opposition to the Belt which led Bridwell to authorize the new study. Mayor Hayes commented that "They (the BPR) just don't like to make decisions in the face of such opposition from civil, political, and religious leaders." He said that Rep. O'Neill--a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee--had constantly prodded the BPR during the summer to allow a re-study of the Belt.
Early this month, His Eminence Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, added his influential voice to the chorus of opposition. The Cardinal said he was disturbed by "the wanton demolition of homes and jobs to make way for highways and high-rise apartment houses," adding that "The whole problem is getting worse, not better." He noted that, "Highways have forced thousands to moved from the only homes they ever knew. These families were driven from the city to the suburbs where, in recent years, we have had to build 85 new parishes."
Though Cushing had previously remained mute on the Inner Belt, he said he had, in Nov., 1964, ordered the Rev. Paul J. McManus, whose church was located near the Belt's path, to organize opposition against the highway. (McManus led the Belt foes to Washington last May.)
However, even if the planners' arguments and local political pressure created the drive for the review, they might not have overcome the bureaucratic impetus created by the DPW's decision of last May without outside help.
The most important factor which led to the shelving of the Belt was probably simply the BPR's money problems. The Interstate Highway System, of which the Belt is a part, was scheduled to be completed by 1973, but rising construction costs have forced the government to extend the completion date by at least two years.
The federal government's current "war economy" drive has added to the impetus to cut down highway spending. Secretary of Transportation Alan S. Boyd recently sent telegrams to the 50 state governors, asking them for their reactions to a possible 50 per cent cutback in highway spending as an anti-inflation measure.
Given the squeeze on the BPR's funds, some paring of highway project became inevitable. The Inner Belt, which will take five years to build, would not have to be approved until 1970 in order to be built under the Interstate System. It was a logical candidate for delay. In one stroke, the BPR was able to put off both a noisy group of opponents and a potential multi-million dollar expenditure.
The new study is expected to take at least six months; its exact cost has not yet been determined. A "technical committee" is now planning the study; it will report to the overseeing committee within a month. After that, the city will name consultants to do the actual work of the study. Finally, the overseeing committee will evaluate the conclusions reached by the consultants.
During their meeting with Brid-well, the City officials agreed to concentrate the study in three areas.
* First, a review of the overall desirability of the Inner Belt in light of metropolitan Boston's present-day population, traffic distribution, and the impact of the Belt on the areas through which it passes. (This is the problem in which Moynihan and Nash have said they are chiefly interested.)
*Second, an analysis of an alternate route through Cambridge--one which would go from the B.U. Bridge along Memorial Drive to the B&A railroad yards in East Cambridge. Among the various routes proposed for the Cambridge link in the Belt, the Memorial Drive route was usually rejected rather quickly. According to Mayor Hayes, the rejection was due "more to verbiage than actual studies." Hayes said that the DPW had turned down the route as "one-sided"--it would only be accessible on one side; its other side would run along the Charles River. The City has argued that the location of interchanges--two of which are planned for Cambridge--not the location of the road, will determine its serviceability.
*Third, study of "air rights"--construction of apartments on a platform above a depressed highway. The apartments would hopefully be used to house families dislocated by the Belt.
Bridwell promised last month that the federal government would pay 100 per cent of the cost of the supports for the platform, but the City would have to pay for the platform itself. The cost of the platform--perhaps as much as $8 to $10 a foot--might make the construction of any but luxury apartments an impossibility.
Both Moynihan and Nash insisted that the new study would be totally objective--not a propaganda attempt to persuade the federal government to abandon the Inner Belt. "When we're all through, we may come to the conclusion that it would be best to build the Belt right down Brookline-Elm," Nash commented.
This avowal of objectivity did not impress the Boston Globe--a longtime supporter of the Belt--which next day editorialized against the study and called for the building of the Belt. The paper noted that both Moynihan and Nash had last spring led a group of 528 Harvard and M.I.T. faculty members calling for a restudy of the Inner Belt and other transportation plans for the metropolitan Boston area.
However, even at that time, Moynihan and Nash emphasized that their primary interest was not the Inner Belt per se, but rather the entire procedure by which the government chooses highway routes. They even declined to answer questions about the merits of the various Inner Belt routes.
At the very least, the re-study should give Cambridge a breathing spell of a year, but the ultimate fate of the Belt remains open. Even if the committee reports against the entire idea of the Belt, the City's battle would not necessarily be won.
The officials of surrounding cities--principally Boston and Somerville--still favor the general idea of an Inner Belt, though not necessarily the Brookline-Elm route. Mayor Hayes is "positive" that the new administrations in those cities will "review the problem of the Belt" after the November elections, but there is no guarantee that they would then join Cambridge's opposition to the highway.
The DPW and the state planning establishment have fought long and hard for the Belt; they might well continue fighting for it even after an unfavorable report by the new committee. And Governor Volpe--who was the first Federal Highway Administrator back in 1956--said flatly last May, "The Belt was needed 20 years ago, and it's needed more today."
A report against the Belt by the new committee will give Cambridge another talking point in the battle of the Belt, but political power can always over-rule professional reports. The City has been granted a reprieve; but the threat of the Belt is no less real than ever, only a little more distant.