Mike the Mad Biologist

Removing Urban Highways: Thank the Big Dig

Over the past couple of months, there has been a spate of articles celebrating cities that are getting rid of their urban highways. The Christian Science Monitor had an article discussing New Haven’s urban reclamation efforts. NPR reported the following:

How did this happen? After all, this is the country that always saw roads as a sign of progress.

Now, taking down freeways has gone mainstream. Cities as diverse as New Haven, New Orleans and Seattle are either doing it or talking about it. The chief motivation seems to be money…

This is the city planner’s dream: Take out an underused freeway, open up land for new businesses or parks and magically more workers will move back to the city and property values will soar. So far, though, the results have been mixed.

Milwaukee hasn’t seen as much development as proponents hoped after that city took down a spur of the Park East Freeway. But San Francisco revitalized an entire neighborhood by taking down the Embarcadero Freeway in the early 1990s.

The NPR story concludes by using the hypothetical example of a highway that wasn’t built through New York City’s SoHo. And Grist gets in on the act by finding inspiration for Cascadia via Seoul.

Can anyone tell me what shining example of urban reclamation and renewal hasn’t been raised? What city has gone unmentioned? Can ya?


Remember the Big Dig? It was always viewed as a hideously expensive boondoggle (even as 75% of the costs were born by Massachusetts), but, in reality, it truly helped revitalize the southern part of Downtown Crossing, the North End, and the Waterfront. Without it, Boston would be a lot worse off (if it helps, think of the Big Dig as a massive clawback for all of the subsidies, such as the mortgage interest housing deduction, that have essentially subsidized suburbs at the expense of cities*). After all, it happened in the ‘corrupt’** Northeast in an urban area during a time when cities were not popular among the chatterati. It therefore symbolizes ‘corruption’ as opposed to a staggeringly successful urban policy.

Thanks to this unstoppable narrative, the Big Dig, which I would argue is the singular example of urban renewal through highway removal, appears to have disappeared down the memory hole.

Oh well, as long as we’re getting good policy….

*Most people in cities rent, whereas most suburbanites own. Rent, beyond a trivial amount in the MA tax code (~$20 per year), is not tax deductible, whereas mortgages are.

**Having living for much of my life in Virgina, it’s every bit as corrupt as the Northeast.


  1. #1 Moopheus
    April 17, 2011

    “Rent, beyond a trivial amount in the MA tax code (~$20 per year), is not tax deductible,”

    This would appear to be wrong:


    I know that I have used this particular deduction myself many times.

    Also, is the big dig a symbol of corruption per se or just a poorly managed project that took many more years and many more dollars than originally forecast? I know that there have been some allegations of improprieties by various state agents, but not enough to account for all of the cost overruns.

  2. #2 Adam Gaffin
    April 17, 2011

    There’s a key difference, though: The Big Dig didn’t remove a highway – it just moved it underground. That’s different than, say, the West Side Drive in Manhattan, which essentially disappeared when the state decided not to build a replacement Westway.

    Perhaps a better Boston argument would be the road that was never built – 95 through Hyde Park, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury and Cambridge (you can see a mural about the fight against the road on the rear wall of Micro Center in Cambridge). Especially for its time, the decision to cancel that project was truly revolutionary.

  3. #3 dcsohl
    April 17, 2011

    @Moopheus, the page you cite says, “This deduction is limited to 50% of the rent paid not to exceed a total deduction of $3,000.” If you max out the deduction (you’re paying $500/month in rent or more), then you get a deduction of $3K, on a tax rate of 5.3%, which amounts to… $159. No, it’s not $20, but it’s not what home-owners get either (full tax deduction of mortgage interest with a much much higher cap).

  4. #4 Tony P
    April 17, 2011

    The Big Dig didn’t really remove the highway as plunge it underground. I believe the final tally for the project was some $18 Billion dollars. Not bad when you consider the improvements that probably total in the hundreds of billions in new development.

    Here in Providence we did something similar. I-195 was moved. It accomplished a few things. First of which I-195 was no longer a left hand exit from I-95, it’s now a right hand exit further down I-95 South.

    Now if you get on I-95 anywhere north of the interchange you stay right for I-195, left for I-95.

    But it freed up close to 40 acres of development capable land. The only drawback is more than likely Brown University and Johnson & Wales University will get the lions share of that property to enhance their campuses.

  5. #5 Moopheus
    April 17, 2011

    Dcsohl, you are correct. I didn’t say the deduction was as good as what a homeowner got, but what Mike said was that only $20 was deductable. Which was wrong.

  6. #6 Tiercelet
    April 18, 2011

    Hmm . . . I thought Loma Prieta pretty much removed the Embarcadero Freeway, and then the city just didn’t rebuild it? Ahh well, as long as we get good policy.

    Perhaps the Big Dig just put the freeway underground, but the effect’s pretty much the same — the point is that surface land is far more valuable when used for buildings and people than for cars, particularly in urban areas where one square foot of ground could mean twenty to thirty square feet of usable built space.

  7. #7 Eric Lund
    April 18, 2011

    The Big Dig didn’t remove a highway – it just moved it underground.

    Not only that, but it added a new highway: the portion of I-90 east of I-93, including the Ted Williams Tunnel. Nonetheless, it reconnected the North End with the rest of central Boston. Walking under a freeway viaduct is not an aesthetically pleasing experience; crossing a surface boulevard or better yet a park is easier on the eyes.

    Boston wasn’t the only city to have a freeway revolt in the late 1960s/early 1970s. New York City, Baltimore, Washington, Montreal, Portland, and San Francisco (and perhaps other cities as well) all scrapped proposed major urban freeways due to public opposition. Even Los Angeles ended up not building all of the freeways envisioned for that city (though in that case the construction expense may have been the winning argument). The arguments were similar: better quality of life for local residents without the freeways.

  8. #8 Moopheus
    April 18, 2011

    “Not only that, but it added a new highway: the portion of I-90 east of I-93, including the Ted Williams Tunnel.”

    And in addition another tunnel. And the new Tobin Bridge.

    “Perhaps the Big Dig just put the freeway underground, but the effect’s pretty much the same — the point is that surface land is far more valuable when used for buildings and people”

    Not exactly the same, since the highway is still mainly for the benefit of commuters who don’t live in the city. And also, in this particular case, because the cost overruns were so high, most of the plans for stuff to be built on the space had to be scrapped.

  9. #9 Nathanial B.
    April 27, 2011

    Instead of building more parks and business spaces, they should keep that section open possibly for farmers to work in the city, that way food won’t have to travel so far into the cities, possibly decreasing the cost of food. Either that or open a section to the environment. We are loosing the ecosystem to all the places of land used to work on, open it for a section of nature.

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