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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.

Guests:

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

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