The Highwaymen

The battle between city people and the highway establishment is one front in the developing struggle between those who want to redefine America and those who want to keep it the way it was.

Robert Moses had a vision. As he bestrode Manhattan Island, the master builder of New York gazed out over Long Island to the east and New Jersey to the west. Long Island was Moses country, lacerated with highways he had built. These highways dumped great masses of cars into Manhattan in the morning and brought them back at night, tides flowing at Moses’ command. New Jersey was not part of Moses’ domain, but the authorities were sympathetic: the rumor was that they intended eventually to convert their state into a 600-lane highway. 

With both Long Island and New Jersey paved over, Manhattan would remain as a bottleneck. The island was clearly intended by nature to be a highway interchange and parking lot for its neighbors’ cars. Moses, among whose many titles was city construction coordinator, had striven mightily for that goal with his tunnels and bridges and highways. But much remained to be done. People still occupied the space needed for cars. 

So it was that Robert Moses designed the Lower Manhattan Expressway. It would connect the highways in New Jersey and Long Island via the East River bridges and the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River. Cars and trucks would find it easy to cross the island; suburbanites could drive more quickly to city offices. And that was only the beginning, for Moses’ vision foresaw four or five more expressways across the island. These projects would add to Moses’ renown as the man who poured more cement than Pharaoh ever dreamed of. In the minds of those who believe that traffic should have the right of way over people, the plans were reasonable. 

The Lower Manhattan Expressway was first drawn on the city map in 1941. Today, after almost three decades, the dream of Robert Moses, although still planned by the city, has yet to take shape in concrete. The Expressway remains unbuilt. It has been blocked, through years of political guerilla warfare, by the opposition of the people who live in the neighborhoods through which the Expressway would go. 

The battle of lower Manhattan is only the oldest of about two dozen conflicts over city highways that have broken out in recent years. Other fights are going on in Washington, D.C., Cambridge, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Nashville. In the past year these skirmishes have escalated to what the press now calls a national “highway revolt” in the cities. 

That revolt pits the people who live in cities against the second most powerful lobby in the United States. (Everyone concedes first place to the military-industrial complex.) The lobby whizzes along on a superhighway it has paved for itself through the jungles of politics at the local, state, and national levels. There are almost no toll gates on that superhighway, and few red lights. The growing numbers of citizens who want to see more such controls installed have little reason to be hopeful. Most battles against city highways have been lost, mainly because it is the lobby, not the people, that has government support. 

And no wonder. Money is the lifeblood of politics, and the richest blood that flows in the veins of state and local political organizations is derived from highways and their economic side effects. Nothing generates more financial return, legal or otherwise, to those in office than highway construction. Washington is the greatest source of highway construction money, and it is unlikely that any official who wants to stay in Washington will put too many obstacles in the path of that money to the states. 

So the conflict between those who do not want highways cutting into the cities and those who have a vested interest in seeing to it that city highways get built can only escalate. It seems likely to reach a crescendo in the early 1970’s; in the next few months, President Nixon may be forced to reveal which side he is on. The stakes are very high, and not just in money, for the contest over federal highways is, in a real sense, about control over a large part of the American political process. 

Congress gave the lobby its mandate in 1956 with the funding of the Interstate Highway Program. That program, the most precious jewel in the crown of the highwaymen, was set up in 1944. It was only modestly funded until 1956, when Congress decided that 90 per cent of the funds for the program’s 41,000 miles of highway should come from the federal government. The total cost by the 1970’s will top $60 billion. This is said to be the largest public works program in history—which should ring an alarm in the minds of anyone familiar with public works programs. 

The financing of the Highway Program was a classic raid on the Treasury. In the annals of lobbying, the highwaymen who executed this coup deserve to be listed alongside those Chinese contractors who convinced the Ch’in emperors to build the Great Wall of China. There are certain similarities between the two operations. 

The Great Wall was supposed to keep out Mongol invaders. The highway lobby’s trump card was the claim that what they got Congress to call the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” would serve to move military units in case of war (making opposition to it seem somehow unpatriotic). Thus the Lower Manhattan Expressway presumably would make it possible to move troops up from New Jersey in the event the Russians were foolish enough to invade Fire Island (where they would die of culture shock in any case). The Great Wall did not keep the Mongols out, but the Chinese kept on building it over the centuries. Similarly, the interstate highways would be of no use in a 24-hour nuclear war, but last year Congress added on another 1,500 miles to the system. Doubtless the Great Wall lobby in its time, like its American counterpart now, used the argument that the economy would go into a tailspin if the local contractors were deprived of work. 

The arrangement by which money would be made available to finance the highwaymen’s mandate was the lobby’s greatest accomplishment. This arrangement, called by cynics the Ever-Normal Trough, required that all revenues from the federal gasoline tax —now four cents a gallon —and other highway-related taxes (tires, spare parts) be set aside for highway construction alone. Instead of having to engage every year in the kind of undignified scramble for federal money that takes place over the Rivers and Harbors bill, the highway lobby draws its sustenance from a trough that is refilled automatically every year, without legislative appropriation. The act of filling the trough does not even appear in the federal budget. Money pours into it at an annual rate of nearly $5 billion. 

In a moment of inspiration, Congress named this device the “highway trust fund.” The idea is that the taxes are paid by people who use the highways and must be held in sacred trust for more highways. To use the money for any other purpose, the argument goes, would be to violate that sacred trust (calling up the image of a wastrel youth breaking the trust fund set up by his hard-working father for the grandchildren). Representative Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.), one of the small band of guerillas who resist the highwaymen, asked not long ago what would happen if the principle of the highway trust fund were to be applied to the federal tax on alcoholic beverages. Would the alcohol tax be spent only on building bars? 

The lobby so handsomely treated in Washington is both powerful and sophisticated. In contrast to its military-industrial big brother, the highway lobby is more local in its concerns; for the crucial decisions about highway routes, designs, and contracts, though subject to approval by the Bureau of Public Roads, are made at the state level, not in Washington. The lobby is an amorphous coalition; its influence upon Congress is often exerted through local political organizations. 

The interests that benefit from highway construction are the most visible part of the lobby. They include the building contractors and the businesses which supply them with materials like asphalt, stone, and cement. Trucking companies are important. So are tire manufacturers. Among the unions there are the building trades and the teamsters. Then there are the oil industry, whose sales go up with every mile driven, and the auto industry, which needs more roads on which to deploy its products. These last two giants are not so single-minded in their devotion to construction as are the other parts of the lobby. They have other interests, like protecting the depletion allowance and repelling Ralph Nader. 

But there is more to the lobby, for highways are not all there is to highway construction. The 19th Century “robber barons” who built the railroads across the United States made their fortunes not on the railroad but by it, on land suddenly made valuable by access to the railroad. The same is true of highways: more money is often made on the adjoining land than on construction of the roads themselves. So the most powerful thrust behind a highway is often not the men who will build it but the land speculators and developers who will exploit it. 

In rural areas, where the land is undeveloped, money is made simply by new access to property. The highway comes through, land values skyrocket, and speculators graze where cattle used to feed. Holiday Inns and gas stations sprout alongside the concrete. Almost everyone wants the highway to come through or by his land. In the case of limited access roads, the struggle centers on the location of interchanges and exits, for that is where the property becomes most valuable. 

In built-up areas, where the urban highways are being constructed, land manipulation is somewhat different. Here the highway serves as a kind of explosive that changes the pattern of land use. Urban highways typically are routed through low-density neighborhoods of one- and two-story buildings, neighborhoods that are ripe for development into high-density use: industry, commercial buildings, high-rise housing. Without a highway, development may be impossible because of zoning or the difficulties involved in assembling many small properties, or both. The highway literally acts as a blockbuster, smashing the neighborhood and scattering its inhabitants. Those who pick up the pieces can put them to profitable use. 

Making money on highways requires political influence. The influence is used to get the highway routed through or by property you own, or it is used to find out where the highway is going before this becomes public knowledge. The office holder has this inside information and can, if he wishes, pool his knowledge with a speculator’s capital. Look at the route of a highway and the location of its exits, and you see a map of local political influence. Here is a Howard Johnson’s on land recently bought by the county chairman (or, if he is timid, by his brother); over there (“Two Minutes From Freeway,” reads the sign) is a shopping center owned by a man who in turn owns a public official. The recent Mafia investigations in New Jersey turned up the fact that a state senator, in partnership with a reputed Mafioso, owned land in the path of an on-rushing federal highway. The investigators also learned that the alleged Mafioso had gotten almost $400,000 from the state for a tract needed for a highway, a tract for which he had paid $30,000. “Fair market value” is what the state is supposed to pay for land condemned for a highway; but fairness, of course, is in the eye of the state appraiser. 

State and local officeholders have everything to gain from highway construction, on which they can get more bang for a taxpayer’s buck than from any other kind of spending. For some, the return comes in the form of campaign contributions, which are legal; for others, it comes in the form of kickbacks, which are not. The contractors who build the road, and their suppliers, can be counted upon to express their gratitude in a form as concrete as the road itself. The land speculators will also chip in, if, indeed, the officeholder himself does not have a piece of the action. The delightful fact that highways need constant maintenance provides a third source of income. Each spring the chosen contractor goes out to fill the potholes with tax money. Before too many years have passed, the spending on maintenance has exceeded the original cost of construction. Thus each $1 invested in construction can produce, say, $1 in land speculation and another $1 in maintenance—a return of three for one. Now add in the Interstate Highway Program, which pays 90 per cent of the construction dollar. For just one dime of local tax revenue, then, the officeholder gets $3 worth of action. In terms of cost-effectiveness, there is nothing like it in the American political system.

Furthermore, the profit to contractor and officeholder on highway work can be increased to the extent that competition can be prevented. Seldom has this tactic been as fully documented as it was by Arthur J. Holland, who served from 1959 to 1966 as Mayor of Trenton, N.J., and is now a research specialist at the Rutgers University Center for Urban Studies in nearby New Brunswick. In 1956, Holland, then a young city official and candidate for the city commission, decided to take on the highwaymen by announcing that Trenton was paying too much for its street-paving work. 

Paving work is done under specifications laid down by the municipalities. The “specs” dictate the kind of materials to be used and even the maximum distance from which they may be obtained. Buried in the technical jargon of the Trenton specs, Holland discovered, was a pot of gold. The prime beneficiary of that gold was the nearby Kingston Trap Rock Co., which quarries rock and makes building materials. 

The specs required that building materials be obtained from a source not more than 11 miles from the City Hall of Trenton. As the alert reader may already have guessed, the 11-mile limit reached just past Kingston’s quarry. (The late Louis Josephson, the Trenton City Counsel, was vastly amused by the boldness of that 11-mile limit. “I asked them why exactly 11 miles,” Josephson used to chuckle. “And you know what they actually told me? ‘You have to draw the line somewhere’—that’s what they said!”) 

Trenton’s specs also restricted contractors to certain kinds of aggregates. (Aggregates, usually stone, are used for the road base as well as the surface.) In addition to trap rock, contractors were authorized to use granite or gneiss, neither of which was available within the 11-mile limit. But they were not permitted to use gravel or dolomite or slag —all available, and all good enough for other municipalities. This meant they could use only trap rock, and no one supplied trap rock except Kingston. 

Arthur Holland then collected figures from around the state to find out what the Kingston monopoly was costing Trenton. It turned out that while Trenton was paying $14-15 a ton for its aggregates, the five other major cities in New Jersey were paying an average of $10.66. The smaller communities around Trenton were paying only $10.14. Holland also found that the elimination of competition on aggregates made possible the inflation of other parts of the paving bill. He compared the low bids offered on a Trenton street-paving job with the low bid on a job in Newark that was similar in all respects. These were the figures for the items other than aggregates: 

[TABLE]

The Newark prices were 29 per cent lower, and the Trenton low bidder would have been higher than all five contractors who bid in Newark. (“What do they steal in Newark?” cynics wondered.) At Newark prices, Holland calculated, Trenton would have saved $1 million over the previous 10 years. 

Political influence can be used to rig the specifications in other profitable ways. “The easiest way to steal,” according to Holland, is to substitute cheaper or fewer materials than the specs require. Holland ordered borings in a Trenton street and brought up cheaper, forbidden dolomite (brought in by the contractor, Holland learned, from outside the 11-mile limit) instead of the expensive trap rock required—and paid for—by the city. The danger that the street will show evidence of inferior work can be avoided by seeing to it that the specifications call for more elaborate paving than is necessary. (Trenton, for example, once specified an eight-inch base for an alley, while other cities only use six inches.) If the specs call for eight inches of trap rock, the contractor may try to fudge by putting in six inches of dolomite. Since the six inches of dolomite are an adequate base, there is no risk that the street will crumble and expose the disparity to public notice. The difference between what the city pays for (eight inches of trap rock) and what it gets (six inches of dolomite) is pure gravy for the contractor and his friends in City Hall—except, of course, for the payment that must be made to the inspectors who supervise the work. 

Rigging the specifications to prevent competition and permit stealing just adds frosting to the already rich cake of the Interstate Highway Program. For years, until the highway program tried to penetrate the cities, the lobby and its friends in government enjoyed that cake at their leisure. Who, after all, had reason to oppose them? When they are working outside the metropolitan areas—and only 6,000 of the federal system’s planned 41,000 miles are urban—the highway builders do a job that is useful and often necessary. Across most of the United States, the motor vehicle (car, truck, and bus) is still the essential form of transportation. Some of the roads see precious little traffic — four-lane highways from nowhere to nowhere—but even they provoke no great objection. Highways slicing through open country may destroy the environment, raising howls from conservationists; but they do not harm anyone’s personal interest. 

Quite the contrary. Property owners scramble to get their property in front of the bulldozer in hopes of catching Howard Johnson’s eye. The car-owning population sees a new highway as a benefit to itself. Any possible complaint a citizen might raise about how his tax money is spent is muffled by the Interstate Highway Program, for it allows everyone to use that fatally corrupting argument: the money’s going to be spent anyway, so let’s get our share of it. 

The acceptance of highways rests also, of course, on the American love affair with the automobile. For most of us, the car is not just a means of transportation; it is a way of life, an essential status symbol, an object of conspicuous consumption. It is the vehicle to freedom. The young American male achieves his manhood when he gets his driver’s license—remember? Our acceptance of the auto and the highway is ultimately self-fulfilling: more highways are built, public transport withers, and the auto does indeed become a necessity as well as a luxury. James Scott of the Highway Research Board, which is under the National Academy of Sciences, cites a recent opinion study showing “close ego-involvement with the automobile as a way of life.” Scott goes on to contend that if mass transit is to compete successfully with the auto, it will have to offer the consumer status as well as economy. 

Popular opposition did not begin until state and federal highway planners made the decision that the highways would extend not merely to the cities, but into them. Inevitably, this meant bulldozing people rather than pasture, and people in great numbers. Nor, as city-dwellers were quick to realize, was this for the city’s benefit; rather, it was for the convenience of its suburban neighbors. Suburbanites own cars and want to drive to the city to work or be entertained (the railroad they used to ride is falling apart). But most people in cities have no particular reason to drive to the suburbs. It is true that truckers and downtown stores benefit in the short run from city highways. But highways through the city destroy neighborhoods, increase traffic congestion on city streets, and further poison the air we breathe. 

“What was love in the countryside began to look like rape in the city,” wrote Louise Campbell in City, a magazine published by Urban America. In city after city, people have decided to fight the highways. Often they also have to fight their own elected officials who cannot resist the temptation of those 10-cent highway dollars or the pressure from the local political business establishment. Many of these are minor officials. Some are not. The fiercer the battle, the higher the official it forces to take sides, since conflict tends to move decision-making upward. The public and private powers that line themselves up to march on the side of the lobby can be formidable. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, where the battle is still being fought. Robert Moses is gone at last from the New York power structure, ousted by Mayor John V. Lindsay; but the forces he represented are still pushing the Expressway. They are heavy with clout: Expressway advocates can be found among New York’s most powerful men. 

One is Harry Van Arsdale, the city’s leading labor chief: he likes anything that provides work for the building trades. (Murray Kempton once wrote of the building trades that they have “never given the slightest cause for confidence that they would not pave over their parish priest if they were assured that the project would take a year and pay $3.50 an hour.” Wages have gone up since Kempton wrote that, and the Expressway would take a lot more than a year.) Another Expressway supporter is David Rockefeller, president of the Chase Manhattan Bank and perhaps the single most powerful man in New York. People who work in the Wall Street financial district, just south of the route of the Expressway, are less interested in construction of the Expressway than in the side effects it will bring. “Nobody likes to have unfortunate neighbors next door,” one of the Wall Streeters said. “The Expressway will be the occasion for a lot of clearing and opening up. It will bring in a lot of light and air.” And, of course, money. Smashing the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan would make available valuable land for high-rise office buildings. In anticipation, land prices have doubled in the immediate area, though nearby they have hardly changed. The 30-year shadow cast by the prospect of the Expressway has had the effect of raising land values while creating blight: no one wants to improve his property if it is going to be torn down. 

A third Expressway supporter among New York’s powers is John Oakes, editor of the editorial page of The New York Times. Oakes’s backing is schizophrenic. The Times has come out mildly for the Expressway but has vigorously opposed the highway lobby on most other issues. Another schizophrenic is Mayor Lindsay. As a Congressman, Lindsay was strongly against the Expressway. Since he became Mayor, and after the Expressway was redesigned to be depressed rather than elevated, Lindsay has come out for it, but his support seems less than enthusiastic. Lindsay gives the impression he would rather talk about something else, and who can blame him? Finally, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, David’s brother, is for the Expressway. 

The opposition is hardly equal to the organization and power behind the Expressway. It comes chiefly from citizens in the path of the proposed construction. The Expressway would cut a slice through the ethnic mosaic of New York. Starting at the East River, the route goes through the Lower East Side, once the city’s great Jewish ghetto and now a cauldron of Puerto Ricans and blacks as well as Eastern Europeans. As it proceeds west, the route would rip through an area of old loft buildings, home to marginal manufacturers who make intensive use of unskilled labor. It also cuts through two specialized ethnic enclaves: Chinatown and Little Italy. Finally it would skirt Greenwich Village which, contrary to its reputation, is inhabited by people who are upper middle class—and very verbal. 

The people of these varied neighborhoods have fought the Thirty Years’ War against the Expressway with some help from sympathizers in other parts of the city and with the leadership of, among others, author Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities shook the city planning establishment to its concrete foundations. Mrs. Jacobs, a resident of Greenwich Village for many years, was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct last spring as she led a demonstration at an Expressway hearing. If she and the other citizens of lower Manhattan haven’t won the fight against the Expressway , they haven’t lost it, either. As of this writing, the city is still planning to go ahead with the Expressway; but just recently the opponents won a reprieve on an issue of rising public and even official interest—air pollution. 

Air pollution became the key issue thanks to the persistence of the opposition. Almost a year ago, Arthur Stoliar, chairman of Community Planning Board Number Two, Manhattan, whose function is to advise the borough president and the City Planning Commission, asked the city to make a study of the proposed Expressway’s effects on air pollution. The city’s Air Pollution Control Department conducted the study but refused to make the results public; in fact, it even refused to acknowledge to Stoliar that the study had been completed. That it had been finished was learned by writer Mary Perot Nichols from friends at City Hall, where she had once worked. Mrs. Nichols began asking in the Village Voice why the report was being kept secret. Reporters from the Voice and later The New York Times requested copies of the study from the Air Pollution Control Department; they were told that the report was too technical for them to understand, that they could look at it in Department headquarters but could not take it out of the office. Finally Edward I. Koch, then a City Councilman and now a Congressman, presented himself to the Department, asked for a copy of the study, and got the same refusal. Koch, a long-time Expressway opponent, then informed the Department Commissioner that if the study were not released he would make a public statement saying it was being suppressed. 

The study was released. Koch had it analyzed by the Scientists’ Committee on Public Information, a non-partisan group of scientists who provide scientific evaluations of government reports free, in order to make them intelligible to the public. On the basis of their evaluation, the scientists issued a statement warning that air pollution would “cause the physical collapse of some people near the Expressway.” That statement seems at the moment to be the last best hope of stopping the Expressway.

In other cities people are also losing the battle against urban highways. Only one city in the United States, San Francisco, has won a clear victory over the highwaymen. Drawing perhaps on their vigilante tradition, San Franciscans beat off the highway builders and, in a magnificent gesture, tossed $280 million in federal funds back into the highway trough. The exact spot at which the highwaymen were repelled is marked by the Embarcadero Freeway, which hangs in mid-air, unfinished, in downtown San Francisco. Some day there will be a statue there. The San Francisco Bay Area has embarked on a major new mass rapid transit system reaching out into the suburbs, in recognition of what everyone believes who isn’t paid to believe otherwise: there are faster, cleaner, cheaper ways than the auto of moving people in and out of a city. Even Mayor Joseph Alioto spoke heresy: “We don’t think we owe that much to the automobile.” A New Yorker can only conclude unhappily that San Francisco’s claims to cultural leadership are based on more than Haight-Ashbury. 

Those who would like to believe that the power of the highway lobby may finally be diluted by the power of the federal government have little cause for optimism. The kind of attention being paid to the problem by Congress, notably in the case of Washington, D.C., elicits nothing but cheers from the lobby. Since Congress controls the District of Columbia’s budget, the freeway fight in Washington pits the opposition, mainly black ghetto residents, not only against the suburbs of Washington but also directly against the Congress of the United States. The capital is already riddled with highways: 30 per cent of its land is occupied by roads, a percentage even higher than that of Los Angeles. Still unsatisfied, the highway builders set out to build more freeways from the suburbs, for the convenience of federal employees who live out of town. The planners proposed an $800 million package of which the most disputed parts proved to be the Three Sisters Bridge across the Potomac and the North Central Freeway leading to the Maryland suburbs. The bridge would destroy nearly 54 acres of public land and defile historic sites on both sides of the Potomac. The North Central route has shifted with the political wind. The original route was along Wisconsin Avenue, where traffic surveys said it should be. But that is well-to-do white territory, so the route was shifted further east, to go through low-income black neighborhoods. Congress even voted a law banning freeways west of 12th Street, on the white side of the racial dividing line. This is basic highway strategy: go where the clout is least. (One reason for not going into the commercial district is that the city would lose the taxes of businesses forced out by a highway.) “Through the park or the ghetto” is the urban highway planner’s slogan. In Washington they tried both—North Central was at one time routed through Rock Creek Park. 

The blacks, no longer docile, rose in opposition. Their leader has been R. H. Booker, a young militant; joining in the outcry was the rasping voice of Sammie Abdullah Abbott, an old-time white union organizer. Using tactics ranging from persuasion to disruption, they have fought the highway package at countless meetings. They call North Central “a white man’s highway through black men’s bedrooms.” This description is entirely accurate —black homes would be destroyed for the benefit of white commuters—and it applies to many of the disputed city highways. The black opposition has been remarkably successful. In December, the District City Council voted 8-0 for a highway plan that did not include either the Three Sisters Bridge or the North Central Freeway. (This was, it may be noted, an important result of the limited home rule granted the District under President Johnson. Though they are appointed, the Councilmen voted the wishes of the people rather than those of Congress.) 

The Congressional reaction to this revolt in its backyard was swift and brutal. The House inserted in the annual highway bill a section ordering the District to build Three Sisters and North Central. President Johnson intervened on the side of the District and blocked that dictate. But William H. Natcher, (D-Ky.). chairman of the District Appropriations Subcommittee, insists that his subcommittee will vote no funds for Washington’s subway system —planned for several years—until construction of the highway package is underway. Whether the District can continue to resist Congressional attempts to starve it into submission remains to be seen. “This one smoked out the highway lobby,” one observer commented. “They had to take off the velvet glove and use the mailed fist.” 

Even if Congress loses that battle to the District, which is doubtful, it has other ways of expressing its loyalty to the highwaymen. In 1968, $4.4 billion for highways poured into the Ever-Normal Trough, while Congress appropriated $140 million for mass transit. That 30-1 ratio is a fair representation of how the House votes on highway bills. (The House, where money bills originate, is the key body on highways.) When dissidents like Bingham or Richard (Max) McCarthy (D-N.Y.) of Buffalo offer a bill that the lobby dislikes—the one it hates most would permit diverting some of the money flowing through the trough to mass transit—they are supported by about a dozen other Representatives. The attempt to force the District of Columbia to build highways, perhaps the lobby’s baldest act of the past year, was opposed by three of the 34 members of the House Public Works Committee—McCarthy, Jerome R. Waldie (D-Calif.), and Fred Schwengel (R-Iowa). McCarthy has been described as a Congressman who “has kept his capacity for indignation even though he’s on the Public Works Committee.” McCarthy speaks with relish about the horrified reaction of his colleagues to Bingham’s bill which would have allowed cities to use “trust” money for any kind of transportation. “Like burning the flag!” McCarthy chuckles. 

The executive branch, though not a willing pawn of the highway lobby like Congress, has not been able to resist the lobby’s pressure. Most recently, the lobby trounced Alan S. Boyd, Secretary of Transportation in the Johnson Administration. Late last year, Boyd provoked both the lobby and its opponents into a show of strength by proposing new regulations governing the procedure for approval of federally-aided highways. The new rules would have required two public hearings instead of one and the consideration of alternative methods of transportation . Most important, the rules would have permitted the people to appeal to Washington the decisions of their state highway departments. Boyd scheduled a week of hearings on the new regulations: the ragtag opponents against the armored bulldozers of the lobby. 

Even before the hearings, the highway establishment bared its teeth in an impressive snarl. It induced all 50 Governors to sign a resolution protesting the new regulations. The Governors’ concern over this heretical extension of democracy to highway planning was understandable, for it tended to weaken their hold on the politically valuable federal highway money. Speculation in highway property would become risky if the route could be changed by an appeal to Washington, where the decision would be beyond the control of the state highway establishment. 

For the hearings, the lobby sent to Washington a procession of state highway officials, associations of contractors, auto manufacturers, and truckers. Something called the “Good Roads Federation” appeared in several states. Chambers of Commerce represented the business interest in highways. Iowa offered a full range of materials suppliers: Limestone Producers of Iowa, Iowa Asphalt Pavement Association, Iowa Concrete Paving Association. The man from Indiana Highways for Survival came to say that survival of the American economy depended on the good health of the contracting business in which, he complained, profits are “razor thin.” The opposition fielded a few big-city mayors or their representatives (among the latter were people from San Francisco, New York, and Cleveland), conservationists (Commission for Green Foothills of Palo Alto, Citizens Advisory Committee on Recreation and Natural Beauty), planners, architects, and some urban citizen groups. 

As the hearings began, it was clear that the lobby’s opponents were out-gunned. They did not have much artillery to begin with, and many on their side were absent: who was going to pay their way to Washington? There seemed to be a sociological difference between the highway establishment and its opponents. Those on the establishment side were all male, white, middle-aged, close-cropped. On the other side: the tweedy ladies who defend good causes, the black, the young and the old (under 40 and over 60), the shaggy, the old-money oddball, the intellectual. 

The lobby was in the mainstream, and they did indeed have the guns. A month after the hearings, three days before he was to leave office, Boyd had the revised regulations issued. They did provide for two public hearings instead of one, a significant advance. But the right of appeal to Washington was dropped, and so was the provision that other forms of transportation must be considered. A spokesman for the American Road Builders Association pronounced himself satisfied: the regulations had been gutted of any threat to the lobby. 

Alan Boyd tried to contain the lobby, and he failed. The question is whether the present Administration will even try. In the next few months, Mr. Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation, John A. Volpe, will have to show his hand in his rulings on unresolved urban battles. The highwaymen have good reason to assume that Happy Days Are Here Again. Volpe is himself a contractor—in fact, the Volpe Construction Company is building the new offices of the Department of Transportation—and he was Federal Highway Administrator under Eisenhower. As Governor of Massachusetts, and later during his confirmation hearing, Volpe expressed his opposition to all of the procedural innovations proposed by Boyd last year. The non-highwaymen brought into the Department by Boyd gloomily predict that Volpe will ring down what they call “the concrete curtain.” The old-time bureaucrats in the Bureau of Public Roads—“our job is to build roads”—look forward to more “pragmatism” under the new Secretary. Translated, this means less of the fancy systems analysis that somehow always shows the advantages of mass transit over roads. It may also mean that Volpe will soon rescind Boyd’s last-gasp regulation requiring two public hearings instead of one. Perhaps, one of the old-timers mused, we have been paying too much attention to the views of “minorities.” The President will have an important political decision to make when the highway battle comes to him: whether to be true to his own kind of people or to make a gesture to the urban voters. 

One highway conflict may be brought from Massachusetts to Mr. Nixon’s desk by two of his subordinates, Volpe and Daniel P. Moynihan, the President’s urban affairs adviser. The battle is over a proposed highway through Cambridge. Volpe, as Governor of Massachusetts, favored the highway; Moynihan, as director of the Harvard-MIT Center for Urban Studies, was a leader of the opposition. The odds are against Moynihan and the residents of Cambridge. 

It is true that the odds against those who oppose urban highways today are somewhat less than they were in Moses’ day. Optimists point out that America’s love affair with the automobile may be passing out of the honeymoon stage, thanks in part to Ralph Nader. Criticism of the automobile itself and of the highway establishment is appearing more and more frequently in the national media. Nothing has done more for that trend than Jane Jacobs’ landmark book, which inspired the middle classes to take up arms in a battle that had been fought only by the people in the path of the bulldozer. 

Those who struggle against the invading urban highways have made some gains, though none as dramatic as the victory of San Francisco. Robert Moses’ dream of a mid-Manhattan highway has gone to the junkyard, for example, because neither ghetto nor park was available to accommodate it. Several cities have been able to force the highway builders to redesign their product, usually from an elevated road to one that is below ground level. Depressed roadways cost more, mainly because excavation and the rerouting of utilities are expensive; but they are less destructive than the elevated highway, which casts noise and dirt and darkness on its surroundings. Elevated highways have been redesigned after citizen protest in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. (The New Orleans highway, which City magazine called “an expressway named destruction,” would have damaged the city’s French Quarter. It was designed by a consultant from New York —Robert Moses.) Congress voted last year to provide relocation payments to tenants bulldozed for a highway—before that, only owners were compensated. 

The planning of city highways is being changed somewhat by the “urban design concept team.” The idea, devised by Baltimore architect Archibald Rogers, is to bring into the planning process, typically monopolized by engineers, such men as environmental scientists and sociologists. Rogers conceived of this tactic for his own city, then beset by plans for three federal highways, one of them originally laid out by, of course, Robert Moses. The group assembled through Rogers’s efforts got a $4.8 million grant from the Department of Transportation to redesign Paltimore’s highways in such a way as to make them as sound as possible—environmentally. The idea is becoming fashionable: similar teams are at work in Chicago and Brooklyn. 

But these are victories in a losing war. Even the urban design concept team has severe limitations: the Baltimore group could reduce the destruction but not block the highway entirely. “Design concept” deals with how a highway is built, not whether —and whether is where the crunch occurs. The highway lobby does not care how a highway is built, elevated or depressed, as long as it is built, and as long as the city’s dependence on the automobile and truck is increased. 

A large battle over the future of the entire Interstate Highway Program is shaping up for the early 1970’s, and the lobby has already begun preparing for that fight. The precipitating factor is the expiration date of the “trust fund.” Created in 1956, the trust fund was originally due to expire in 1972; it has already been extended to 1974. No one can expect the highwaymen to give up $5 billion a year without a fight. Their first step in the campaign to keep the Trough flowing after 1974 was a presentation to Congress by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) in 1967. AASHO thinks big. The United States should, AASHO told Congress, spend $285 billion on roads in the decade 1975-85. Then, having proved it can count as high as the military-industrial complex, AASHO tempered its demands: the U.S. could “partially” meet its highway needs by spending only $78 billion—two-thirds of it from the Ever-Normal Trough, the rest to be paid by the states. 

The opposition, too, is getting ready for that fight. The District of Columbia militants are trying to form a national anti-freeway organization, which they call the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis; and, at this writing, they were planning to hold a national conference in Washington February 22-24. 

But the opposition will have to be much better organized than it is today if it is to make any serious dent in the lobby’s grandiose plans. The opponents are volunteers and amateurs. The lobby is paid and professional: it has planners on tap to prove whatever needs proving. (Robert Moses’ favorite planners have proved that 80 per cent of the traffic on the Lower Manhattan Expressway will be interstate, and also that 80 per cent of it will be local.) City anti-highway groups usually disappear as organizations after their own battles are lost or won. A reservoir of anti-highway opinion exists among residents of threatened neighborhoods, conservationists, planners, and, most recently, environmental scientists; but up until now, nobody has tried to bring these dissidents together as a national pressure group. 

The highway revolt is against the tyranny of the machine—the highway bulldozer and the political machine that drives it. Being helpless before the highway lobby is just one form of the powerlessness that Americans increasingly resent. Seen from this perspective, the battle between city people and the highway establishment is one front in the developing struggle between those who want to redefine America and those who want to keep it the way it was.

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David Hapgood

David Hapgood was a Senior Editor at Washington Monthly and author of Africa from Independence to Tomorrow (1965), The Screwing of the Average Man (1974), and Year of the Pearl (1993).