The Interstates and the Cities: The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Freeway Revolt, 1966–1973
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The Interstates and the Cities:
The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Freeway Revolt, 1966–1973

When construction began on the urban expressways of the new Interstate Highway System in the late 1950s, homes, businesses, schools, and churches began to fall before bulldozers and wrecking crews. Entire neighborhoods, as well as parks, historic districts, and environmentally sensitive areas, were slated for demolition to make way for new expressways. Highway builders leveled central city areas where few people had cars so that automobile owners from other places could drive to and through the city on the big, new roads. As one analyst of postwar America put it: "The desire of the car owner to take his car wherever he went no matter what the social cost drove the Interstate Highway System, with all the force and lethal ef ect of a dagger, into the heart of the American city."1 In response, citizen activists in many cities challenged the routing decisions made by state and federal highway engineers. This Freeway Revolt found its first expression in San Francisco in the late 1950s, and eventually spread across urban America. By the late 1960s, freeway fighters began to win a few battles, as some urban expressways were postponed, cancelled, or shifted to alternative route corridors.

The modest success of the Freeway Revolt of the 1960s is generally attributed to the persistence of grassroots, neighborhood opposition movements around the nation. Those movements no doubt had significant impact. However, the anti-expressway movement also must be located and interpreted within the wider context of the shifting political, legislative, and [End Page 193] bureaucratic environment in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and early 1970s. Transportation policymaking at the congressional level, and especially in the House and Senate public works committees, responded to opposition movements, but also to many special-interest groups with much at stake. The executive branch also engaged in policymaking, as presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon sent key transportation bills to the Congress or vetted others through the Bureau of the Budget. Executive and legislative action had important consequences, but this article argues that the crucial response to the Freeway Revolt took place at the level of policy implementation. Beginning in 1966, the new U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), through its constituent agencies—the Federal Highway Administration and the Bureau of Public Roads—had responsibility for getting the interstates completed. But DOT leadership balanced that objective against the demonstrated negative impacts of building expressways in built-up urban areas. The first two secretaries of the DOT, Alan S. Boyd and John A. Volpe, along with high-level federal highway administrators, mediated highway disputes, promoted alternative methods of urban transit, advocated diversion of highway trust funds for other transportation uses, and made crucial shutdown decisions on several controversial urban expressways. Through policy and procedure manuals, federal highway agencies imposed new rules and regulations that curbed many of the excesses of state highway engineers. Many executive branch transportation bills were first written in the DOT. This article, then, focuses primarily on how the federal highway bureaucracy responded to the Freeway Revolt and charted new directions on controversial highway matters.

Interstate expressway construction took place within a highly contested political arena. Powerful lobby groups representing engineering firms, the heavy construction industry, trucking companies, construction and trucking unions, auto and oil companies—each had a huge stake in interstate highway policy, financing, and implementation. Other interest groups representing mass transit and railroads had a different set of interests, primarily seeking to defend declining forms of transportation in the automobile age. Big-city mayors had their own advocacy organizations—the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors—looking to federal policy on highways and mass transit as alternative means of dealing with massive traffic congestion and rescuing central cities threatened by suburbanization. Through the American Association of State Highway Officials, state highway agencies and engineers sought to shape road-building policy and financing. Urban planners lamented the dominant role of highway engineers in locating and building the interstates. Citizen, consumer, and community groups also challenged federal [End Page 194] transportation policy; they organized, lobbied, demonstrated, and litigated...


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