• U.S.

The Highway: Hitting the Road

4 minute read

It looked like the War of Independence all over again. There, in front of George Washington’s Revolutionary headquarters in Morristown, N.J., marched a small army of residents wearing tricornered hats and flowing capes, toting vintage muskets and calling fellow citizens to arms. Their enemy? A six-lane superhighway that threatens to slice through the historic part of town. The fight-the-highway movement is not unique to Morristown. As the federal government’s $41 billion interstate highway program enters its ninth year, more and more citizens are protesting that the road to faster automobile travel is not worth the havoc it often creates in the neighboring countryside.

With a far sharper eye on costs than on esthetics, engineers often design roads with a straight edge, dissecting suburban villages and overrunning metropolitan landmarks. State highway departments, eager to capitalize on the Government’s offer to pay 90% of interstate highway costs, often want to build roads where residents think they are not needed. Among current battlefields:

> LA CANADA, CALIF. In this luxuriant valley eleven miles north of downtown Los Angeles, residents are making a last-ditch stand against a proposed eight-lane speedway that would cut their community in half. Running east-west alongside the town’s main thoroughfare, it would link up other northern suburbs but do nothing for the town itself, seems to La Canadans little more than a ruse to collect $60 million in federal grants. The highway department claims that the projected-population figures for La Canada by 1980 necessitate the freeway. Planning Consultant Lyle Stewart retorts: “This area is built up with single-family units. The only way the population could increase is with multiple units, and the only thing that will bring them in here is a freeway. It’s a chicken v. egg proposition.” As it stands now, the highway department will go ahead and lay the egg.

> NEW ORLEANS. To untangle traffic jams in the city’s business district, the Louisiana highway department has proposed an elevated six-lane highway that would skirt the historic French Quarter and parallel the Mississippi River. Preservationists claim the highway will not only destroy the area’s flourishing tourist trade, but also defeat their hopes of clearing a view of the Mississippi, long obscured by riverside warehouses. Warns Harnett T. Kane, president of the Louisiana Landmark Society: “It is the greatest single danger now confronting historic New Orleans.”

> PHILADELPHIA. Penn’s Landing has been called the “Gateway to Philadelphia.” It was there that William Penn landed in 1682 to found the City of Brotherly Love. But now the gateway is to be cut off from the rest of the city by a freeway carried on 22-ft.-high pillars. U.S. Senator Hugh Scott (Republican) claims “it desecrates the city’s grand design.” In agreement are Senator Joseph Clark (Democrat) and Mayor James H. J. Tate. Instead, they propose spending whatever funds are necessary to tunnel the expressway under the area, even though the aboveground one-mile segment as now planned will cost an estimated $35 million. But this is the kind of issue on which honest men may honestly differ. Philadelphia’s Urban Renewal Chief Edmund Bacon (TIME cover, Nov. 6), who is as much concerned with esthetic values as any other planner alive, defends the elevated highway: “Burying the expressway would cut off the motorist’s view of what we are trying to do, to develop Society Hill.”

As a compromise, the state has offered to lower the elevation to three feet. The Senators and sentimentalists, however, will probably not be happy until the road is underground, and the fight goes on.

The state and its engineers have a built-in advantage. There are always more motorists in any one state than citizens in any one town. Even the towns themselves are divided. For every town that opposes one highway plan, ten are delighted that it is not going through theirs.

There is, nevertheless, the growing feeling that the motorist who is just passing through cannot always be allowed to take precedence over the people who actually live there. Reflecting on the crisis in La Canada, the Los Angeles Times mused: “Now that the basic routes have been built, there is ever-increasing concern over the direction that future freeways should take. Does not a diminishing return set in when remaining residential and scenic areas are threatened with conversion into concrete freeway lanes? There is still time to plan the freeways of the future, but we are running out of community and aesthetic resources.”

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