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Traffic vs. Tech in the 1960s
December 21, 2009

The railroad tracks that slice through campus are mostly silent these days, a relic of an era when factories lined the Charles River. But in the mid-20th century, those tracks nearly got transformed into a double-decker, eight-lane thruway. If not for the slow pace of bureaucracy, the vagaries of politics, and the foresight and courage of some key Institute alumni, expressway traffic would now be rattling through the heart of MIT.

THE ROUTE NOT TAKEN This 1951 map shows a proposed highway cutting through MIT.

In 1948, Massachusetts proposed building eight highways radiating from an “Inner Belt” circling Boston. The Inner Belt would take you from the BU Bridge straight to Somerville and beyond. And, yes, straight through Central Square … or MIT’s campus. The exact route was unconfirmed; it became an 18-year topic of conversation.

Studies were done and consultants called. Communities organized. Residents demonstrated. Compromises were attempted. River Street, Lee Street. Brookline Street, Elm Street. Back and forth went proposals, more studies, and conflicting objections.

Then, in late 1965, some Cambridge officials quietly advocated pushing the Inner Belt to the Grand Junction railroad, between Albany and Vassar Streets. The elevated expressway would consume both streets in its 300-foot right of way–isolating MIT from the community and blocking potential expansion. MIT’s argument against the route included alarming statistics: 2,400 potential jobs lost, 552 homes razed, and $80 million in losses to MIT. Even more compelling in that Cold War climate were the facilities that would be jeopardized–the Instrumentation Lab, nuclear reactor, and Magnet Lab among them.

As director of MIT’s planning office from 1960 to 2000, O. Robert Simha, MCP ‘57, wrestled with this issue daily. (Today, he is a research affiliate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.) By the late 1960s, he says, it was clear that nobody really wanted the Inner Belt. “It was an artifact of an earlier time when a single-mode transportation system was believed to be the answer to everybody’s prayers,” he recalls. “It just no longer made sense.” But political momentum is a powerful thing. Indeed, in the almost 20 years since the Inner Belt had been proposed, people had only asked where, not whether, it should be built.

With the prospect of a highway in MIT’s backyard, Simha raised that question. “The [strategy] that I recommended was: We should not accept this notion,” he says.

When the 1965 election ushered in what Simha calls a “more thoughtful” group of Cambridge officials, the new city manager, on Simha’s recommendation and with MIT’s backing, hired independent urban planner Justin Gray, MCP ‘52, to advise and assist in carrying out this strategy. The city appointed Gray assistant city manager. He was “very able and determined and socially motivated. And very skillful as a political operative,” says Simha. “He made it possible to raise–not just from our parochial perspective, but from the city’s perspective–all of the issues of intelligent urban transportation. With Justin’s leadership, we were able to make the case that this was an inappropriate public investment.”

Francis Sargent’s assumption of the governor’s office in 1969 helped too. Gray, Simha, and others from MIT continued the case against the Inner Belt in Cambridge (while community activists fought it in Boston), and Sargent (who had studied architecture at MIT in the 1930s) cancelled a $5.5 million route study. In 1970 he put a moratorium on building limited-access highways inside Route 128. In 1971 he called off the Inner Belt project completely.

“To actually stand up and say, ‘No, we shouldn’t do this’ takes a lot of guts,” says Simha. “It also takes somebody who is not worried about their next meal. Frank Sargent, happily, was that somebody. Even though he’d been highway commissioner, he realized this was not the right thing.” Sargent went on to promote multimodal transportation plans that included public transit.

The crisis was averted. MIT could expand northward, free from the shadow of rusty highway girders and the din of overhead traffic. MIT planners could turn to other projects, like the development of the now-bustling Kendall and Technology Squares. “If you think about the economy of this region now and how easily it could have been stopped cold,” says Simha, “you have to ask yourself: Weren’t we lucky to have the right people in the right place at the right time to take this absurd Depression-era public works project that ballooned into a monster, and basically say, ‘Stop’?”

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