A Great Concrete Dagger
Building highways out of habit
November 30, 1979
The elevation of faster traffic flow to the level of social good was a chronic complaint of mine. My prediction in the opening graf that energy costs would soon render roads superfluous was more hopeful than wise, and I would regard it as a kindness if you never mention it again.
It is one of the ironies of our recent political life that roads should have become so volatile an issue just when the changing economics of energy bid to render them increasingly superfluous. Oh. well. We’ve built roads from habit rather than need for years; indeed, late 20th century American society may be described as ever more elaborate expressways linking ever more elaborate traffic jams. Road planners have long sought to smooth things out by making everything into one gigantic expressway. People, however, are beginning to complain.
They have complained most recently in Springfield. For a decade, state and local planners have been working toward the conversion of an old railroad track along Madison Street in downtown Springfield into one half of a major new east-west traffic corridor. The project’s once-grand dimensions have been progressively pared by rising costs—(to this day some locals refer to it as the “Madison expressway" ) until it now is planned as a rather ordinary multi-lane “signalized” street with grade-level intersections (intersectionalized?) with speed limits closer to 35 than 55 mph. First-phase construction is expected to be finished by 1983.
That first phase would mean building the new corridor right next to the John Hay Homes, Springfield's postwar monument to public housing hopes. Residents there, speaking individually and through the Hay Homes Residents Council and the neighborhood organization known as the Streetside Boosters, oppose the project bitterly. They say the corridor will bring noise and fumes into the neighborhood, endanger children who live nearby, make it difficult to reach the nearby Neighborhood Facilities Building.
The project is being backed by the usual crew—downtown business interests represented by the Chamber of Commerce and the downtown development association, the state Department of Transportation and a succession of Springfield city councils. The state, for example, wants the corridor so it can more efficiently deliver its battalions of tax processors to its new Department of Revenue building going up near the western end of the corridor. The state, speaking through the voice of its District 6 engineer, William Burns, seems to be saying that the use of traffic signals and landscaping and intersections and pedestrian overpasses would result in a street that would have the same invigorating effect on the East side that the London Bridge had on Lake Havasu City. A resident asked Burns at a November 20 meeting if he’d want such a street next to his house. Burns reminded her that he lives near the West Belt expressway. It figures. Highway engineers are like those old women who keep dozens of cats and are oblivious to the stink they make. I guess if you love something enough you don’t notice the mess they make.
Predictably, silly things have been said on both sides of this particular stink. Burns said it would be a “gateway” to downtown for the residents of the east side, which is the part of town where state highway engineers do not live. Neither is it where editorial writers for the State Journal-Register live; they noted last Sunday that the new street would not only be "more practical” for the present unused railway corridor “but it should be considerably more sightly.”
We’ve received scarcely better from some opponents. In the spring issue of its newspaper, “The People's Press, "the Streetside Boosters offered a call that was provocative and accurate in roughly inverse proportion. Planners, the piece said, “look for a soft spot to attack and they always find it. ‘Let’s run it through Niggertown . . . They can’t stop us even if they want to.’”
As usual, we got a steadier look from the solid middle ground from which the League of Women Voters observes local affairs. At a public hearing on November 27 the league complained that planners did not take social and environmental consequences into account. The league’s objections were numerous.
How will Hay Home residents get to nearby Comer Cox Park? (Engineers promise a pedestrian overpass. )Why is the state spending great amounts of money to build a new road to bring cars into downtown at the same time it is considering spending more money on a centralized mass transit center to do the same thing? Wouldn’t it be better to convert the unused Madison right-of-way to downtown parking? Or green space? Or bikeways? Won’t such a street make it just as easy to bypass downtown as to get out of it? How can one arm of government justify razing twenty-four units of low-income housing (townhouses built by the Springfield Housing Authority along Jefferson) while another struggles to build enough to meet its waiting list?
The state’s answers to these questions are unpersuasive. Of course, those answers may be irrelevant to the broader aims of the project. The state has never demonstrated any conscience about the effects its expansion has on the social, economic, or environmental fabric of its host city, except that imposed on it by the federal government.
The state may fairly be said to resemble the generals who are busy preparing for the last war. In its broadest sense the Madison corridor is not distinguished from a half-dozen other equally ill-considered projects—the lies extension, the Chatham Road "improvement,” the West Belt, the MacArthur widening—in which highway builders have sought to elevate faster traffic flow to the level of social good.
I have a friend, an experienced transportation planner, who dismissed the Madison corridor over a year ago as an anachronism. Being English, he affects a rather more colorful mode of speech than his American colleagues. The project, he told me, would be like "driving a great concrete dagger right through the heart of the city.” As one league officer put it to me, it is simply too late in the century to be building another highway. □