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InterviewsDavid Luberoff

Great Projects: The Building of America

DL: In the '30s and '40s, there were two really significant ideas floating around about national highway policies. The first was this idea that you ought to connect all of the major urban areas of the United States with a national network of interstate highways. The second was a sense that one of the great problems that cities faced was traffic. That's where most of the people lived still. And it was where most of the traffic was. And the cities needed to have highways in order to modernize and compete in - in the modern economy. This is a discussion that starts in the '30s. In the mid '40s, Congress says, yes, we think there should be interstate highways. We think that that system ought to include these urban highways but Congress doesn't provide any money for it. In the early '50s, coming out of World War II and the economic boom at the end of World War II, you see the auto companies and the petroleum companies and the rubber companies beginning to get concerned that they're selling automobiles but there's no roads to drive on. The congestion is this terrible problem and it's something that voters generally are concerned with, that government's not doing [enough], We expect government to do at least a few things very well, one of which is to provide transportation infrastructure. And so there's this growing both popular sentiment and an important segment of the private sector saying we need a more aggressive national highway program. And the Eisenhower administration, which in general was trying to cut back on federal, domestic spending -- Eisenhower himself embraces this idea that the federal government should build this national network of interstate highways. Now how does the federal government do that? It reverses historic policy in which the federal government might pay fifty percent of the cost of the new road and says, this is so important that the federal government will pay ninety percent of the cost of the roads that are on this national interstate system. Eisenhower, himself, only saw this as something that would connect from urban area to urban area but did not believe that these ought to go into cities. Unfortunately, the votes were still in the cities and so to get the congressmen who represented urban areas to back this and - and their constituencies and mayors--the system was expanded to include these urban interstates which is what most mayors really wanted, most downtown business constituencies really wanted as part of their effort to modernize the cities which were already beginning to suffer a long economic decline. And so the urban highway has become part of this interstate system.

The deal with the interstate system--there's two critical factors. The federal government says we will pay ninety percent of the cost of these roads. And we are committed to paying ninety percent of whatever the total cost turns out to be. So it's an entitlement program as opposed to a grant program where the federal government says, you know, here's five hundred million dollars, State of Massachusetts, you figure out the best way to spend this. This reverses that. It says these roads are now on the interstate highway system. We think they're going to cost this much but we might be wrong. And if we're wrong, we don't [think] we'll be wrong by much because we've got good engineers who are doing sort of careful estimates. Over time, this becomes greatly appealing to states and localities. Right, you can get the federal government to pay for a highway and you might even be able to get them to design it to a slightly more expensive standard that you think will be better for your community. For a governor or a local politician, this is very, very appealing money, as long as the highway is generally something that constituents want because you don't have to raise local taxes. You provide a road in an era when people think roads are generally a really nice thing to have. So the public is happy. And you provide lots of jobs and contracts which is important if your economy's ailing and it's also important because it means that there's a smaller constituency that is very, very happy and might support your reelection or support your efforts to go to higher office. Remember you can only use the money to build an interstate highway. It's not like the government came and said here's a billion dollars. Figure out what your biggest problem is. The government comes along and says here's a billion dollars and you have to use it to build highways and, in fact, you have to use it to build this subset of highways.

DL: When Michael Dukakis takes office, he appoints Fred Salvucci as Secretary of Transportation and Salvucci has two great passions. One is transit and one is this idea that you ought to depress the Central Artery. Dukakis' great passion, at least on the transportation front, is transit. So Dukakis' first concern is that he doesn't want anything to get in the way of implementing this transit agenda. They've just gotten federal authorization to use some of the highway money to build transit instead, a major, major victory. And he wants that agenda to go forward. He doesn't want Fred Salvucci to be distracted by this artery idea which he's not even sure is feasible. He's not convinced it's a great idea. He's not convinced it sends the right message at that moment in time. And here's a governor who's elected as a pro-transit governor. He can't have the first thing that he does be building an extremely expensive highway project. Moreover, it's not clear that this highway project is even eligible for federal funding. Massachusetts is in the midst of a terrible recession and the last thing Dukakis wants to do is be putting money into this highway project. So what he does is he says to Fred Salvucci, move the transit agenda forward. These are projects that are ready to go into serious planning. And if you want to do this artery depression thing a little bit on the side, I'm not going to shut it down. I'm going to give you enough room to test it out and see if it works and I'm going to reserve the right to make a go or no-go decision farther down the road when we see if it's technically feasible, politically feasible and fundable.

DL: Well, when Mike Dukakis takes office in 1975, there have only been very basic engineering studies done on whether or not this artery depression idea is really feasible. So the first thing you want to do is you actually want to do a little bit more serious engineering to see if it's going to work the way you think it's going to work. The second thing you want to do is go out to the key constituencies in downtown - both the downtown Boston business community and the residential neighborhoods around downtown Boston to see if this is an idea that they'll accept politically. So Fred is testing it politically. He's testing it technically and, at this point in time, it's not clear whether or not the project is eligible for funding from the interstate highway program. So Fred has to go down to Washington D.C. and see if he can convince the federal highway administration to make the project eligible for interstate highway funding.

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