Get Involved and Make Your Voice Heard: A Too-Simple Recipe to Stop Interstate Highway Expansion

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{the Major Deegan in 1939}

The Major Deegan Expressway in New York shares a number of similarities with the Daniel Boone Expressway (I-64/Highway 40) here in St. Louis. Both are legacies of a bygone era and were built for slower traffic and at least not envisioned initially as Interstate highways. St. Louis now has itself a “New I-64” with added lanes from I-270 to I-170 and rebuilt overpasses and interchanges all the 12-mile project.

More than a few people would have liked to see the “New I-64” renvisioned as an urban boulevard or at least rebuilt without added capacity and with significant additional amenities for pedestrians, cyclists and possibly MetroLink. It didn’t happen. But other places have succeeded in stopping Interstate projects. What’s the key?

Planetizen recently titled a teaser to the story about the Major Deegan Expressway in this way: “Lessons from the Bronx: A community can halt a road expansion project if they get involved and make their voices heard. In this case, the NY DOT listened and thus chose not to widen exit ramps during a rehabilitation project on the Major Deegan.”

Well, that sure sounds simple enough. Get involved! Make your voices heard! Done. I’m still relatively new to St. Louis, but can anyone understand how this process would work in St. Louis? And in terms of the “New I-64” and other projects, are there simply too few “urbanists” in St. Louis for there to be a unified community voice on issues such as this?

According to the Mott Haven Hearld there were several keys to successful opposition. First, the highway plan contradicted other city plans that sought to redevelop the Harlem River waterfront. Perhaps I-64 would be different today if it were a stated plan by the City of St. Louis to improve pedestrian connections to Forest Park and lessen the impact of the Interstate. Those opposed had something to stand on.

Second, “Every speaker at a public hearing at Hostos Community College on Nov. 9 denounced the state proposal.” Although the State was for expanded capacity, the Department of City Planning actually had…plans. “Caro Samol, who heads the Department of City Planning’s Bronx office, said that the highway project would “cause a domino effect. It would severely hamper, if not outright preclude” healthy growth of the waterfront properties. She insisted that there were other alternatives that could both improve the highway and leave access to the waterfront open.”

And lastly, the State DOT listened. ” “We don’t want to be a bad neighbor in that area,” said Levine, the DOT’s director of public affairs. “What we heard from the community was that the widening would impede” waterfront development.”

Incredible.

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