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The Inner Belt: When Boston Said ‘No’ To New Highways

Rendering of the Inner Belt going down Brookline Street by Goodkind and O’Dea, Inc. (Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Society)

Earlier this month state transportation officials announced they will tear down the aging Casey Overpass in Jamaica Plain and replace it with an at-grade interchange, conducive to walking and biking.

The hulking elevated mini-highway is a lingering vestige of an era in which the car was king in Boston. Back then the mantra was, build it up and build it wide, with multiple lanes.

Consider I-695, also known as the Inner Belt. It was a proposed eight-lane superhighway that would have cut through Roxbury, the Fenway, across the river and then straight through Cambridgeport, Central Square and Somerville on its way to I-93. Where the Middle East nightclub and restaurant is now, there would have been a highway the size of the Mass. Pike.

Opposition to the plan grew through the 1960s, but the Inner Belt had many powerful proponents, not the least of whom was former Massachusetts Gov. John Vople, who became Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation. But in February 1970, Volpe’s successor, Gov. Frank Sargent, went on television and announced a moratorium on all new highway construction within Route 128.

By putting the brakes on the Inner Belt, Sargent was forfeiting billions of federal dollars, alienating the powerful construction and business lobbies, not to mention many suburban voters who wanted more and faster ways to get in and out of the city.

Sargent’s decision and the events leading up to it are now considered a watershed moment for city planning. And the legacy extends far beyond the neighborhoods that were spared the wrecking ball.

That legacy is the subject of a series of programs from the Cambridge Historical Society that will run through April, and two of the people involved in those programs join Radio Boston to give a preview.

The Cambridge Historical Society’s Inner Belt Symposia run through April.


  • Tunney Lee, senior lecturer and professor emeritus, MIT
  • Jack Wofford, former director of the Boston Transportation Planning Review

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  • Anonymous

    I thought the point of this fundraiser was to give now so as not to have to listen to one in June.  The constant begging is what is annoying.  I’d rather have fundraising in both March and June if it were done like last week than endure the begging either time.  The short but frequent announcements don’t detract from the listening experience.  Taking donations last week under the guise of giving now to avoid listening to fundraising later was a bit misleading. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-S-Allen/1542337641 John S. Allen
    • Anonymous

       There seems to be multiple sides to the story. I wouldn’t call all aspects of the general view that major automotive interests contributed – directly and indirectly – to the decline of public rail systems in the United States baseless.  Perhaps some particulars of Bradford Snell’s accusations are false.  But there is far more to the saga than his particular version of the conspiracy.

  • Ron

    I think access to Boston from the suburbs, especially I-495 is mediocre at best.  Access from out along Rt 2 or 3 into Boston is terrible.  It takes about an hour to get in from Harvard, MA most times of day or evening, rush hour, an hour and a half.  The commuter trains are a joke.   We rarely go into Boston because of this.   Yet the conversation is taking it as an assumption that not building the Inner Loop was a “good thing”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-S-Allen/1542337641 John S. Allen

       No, building of the Inner Belt would not have been a good thing. Remember the Central Artery? It would have been another. That is not to say that public transportation is anywhere near as good as it might be — agree with you on that. Once a city becomes dependent on motor vehicles for travel in and out, the city  hollows out, and distances required to get to needed destinations increase because the highways and parking take up so much space.

  • Anonymous

    Hats off, again to Jack Wofford and Tunney Lee.
    What a disaster they saved us from!  And it is heartening to see Mr. Wofford’s admiration for the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1974′s “Boston Clause” and the Highway Beautification Act.I wish the commentators would have spoken their opinions of the Big Dig’s debt, the way it was transferred onto the MBTA and the current MBTA people-v.-profit showdown, where rates are to be doubled and service to be slashed.  I say:  Raw Deal based on decades of corrupt, porkbarrel no-bid highway projects, combined with deficit offloading onto public services.  The transferal of this highway debt to the financially sound MBTA constitutes unbelievable corruption!  And don’t get me started on the corruption behind the MBCR’s privatization.   I’ve no doubt that bribes were involved in both cases.  Public Transportation could and should be provided free at point of usage using tax dollars from capital gains, rental property profits or incomes over $230,000.  This would of course necessitate a long-needed revision of the state’s constitution, which mandates a flat income tax. Speaking of corruption, the quote I cited on the air:From “General Motors Street Car Conspiracy” Wiki article (version of 3:30 pm, 26 March 2012):”By the time of the 1973 Oil Crisis, controversial new testimony was presented to a United States Senate inquiry into the causes of the decline of streetcar systems in the U.S.
    This alleged that there was a wider conspiracy—by GM in particular—to
    destroy effective public transport systems in order to increase sales of automobiles and that this was implemented with great effect to the detriment of many cities.”

    I realize that Wikipedia is not an authoritative or error-proof source, but its a useful start for further inquiry.  The following documentaries are also recommended:  “Who Killed the Electric Car” (2006, Chris Paine, Sony Pictures Classics);  “Taken for a ride” (1996, Jim Kline and Martha Olson, New Day Films).

  • Mark

    Funny especially because in a highway-related piece:
    “By putting the breaks on the Inner Belt,…”

    Er… that’d be “brakes.”

    • http://twitter.com/aragusea Adam Ragusea

      Typo fixed, thanks.

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