Sargent’s actions 50 years ago resonate today

Failing to heed his advice has caused our crippling congestion

LEADERSHIP MANIFESTS itself in many ways.

In Massachusetts, in my lifetime, one of the most powerful displays of leadership came from a Republican governor. It happened 50 years ago, and it’s worth remembering for the lessons it teaches, and for its historical importance as a rare but critical pattern break.

Fifty years ago Frank Sargent occupied the corner office at the State House. Sargent was an unlikely governor, thrust into the position by the good fortune to have been plucked from relative obscurity by three-term governor John Volpe. Described by Volpe’s biographer as an “affable, low-key Yankee,” Sargent had served on the state’s Public Works Commission, first as a member and later as its chairman. He was known as an environmentalist, and led the Department of Marine Fisheries. For Volpe, looking for a running mate in 1966, Sargent was a safe choice who came with credible environmental credentials, but also supported Volpe’s auto-centric approach to mobility. Volpe came to office as a former construction industry leader and public works head. He believed in the mid-20th century embrace of highways, often without regard to the externalities that diminished the quality of life for many people, particularly those who lived in cities that were still deemed as places to move through rather than live in.

The transportation debate of that moment was focused on the proposed Inner Belt and Southwest Expressway projects – projects designed to move highway traffic through and around the city’s urban core. In reality, they were projects that would have offered only short term benefit to drivers, followed by permanent, lasting negative impacts to thousands of people who faced actual or virtual displacement as a result of the highway’s inconsiderate alignment. Volpe strongly supported this highway plan as governor, as did Sargent as Public Works Commissioner and Lieutenant Governor. In 1969, when Volpe accepted President Nixon’s invitation to be his US transportation secretary, Sargent took office as Governor. “Sarge was in charge,” as his slogan proclaimed, and he did not share Volpe’s passion for highway building.

Sargent was a savvy politician. He could see the changes taking place across the region as people were rising up in organized groups to oppose highway and airport expansion projects. He was also a sincere environmentalist, and he recoiled at the prospect of open space, waterway, and air quality degradation caused by more highway expansion. At the national level, it was also 50 years ago when the National Environmental Protection Act and the EPA were created. America was focused on environmental protection and air quality, and Sargent was in the vanguard of that effort.

Finally, he was forward looking. He had that rare ability to understand the currents of time; he could imagine a future where mobility was not based on how many new highways could be built but how many people could be reliably brought to their destinations. He convened his staff, spoke to experts, and came to what at the time was viewed by many as a radical conclusion: the highway era had outlived its usefulness. It was time to stop and change course.

One of the experts consulted by Sargent was Alan Altshuler, an MIT political science professor who had made a study of environmental justice issues in connection with highway building. Altshuler recalled Sargent being thoughtful and introspective, listening to the advice he was being given, asking a lot of questions, and describing his opposition to the Inner Belt and Southwest Expressway as “the first test” of whether his own rhetoric about environmental protection was genuine or hypocritical. Altshuler would lead the groundbreaking Boston Transportation Planning Review, an inclusive and (for the times) revolutionary approach to transportation planning, which became the platform for an unprecedented focus on public transportation. He would later become the state’s first secretary of transportation.

And so it was that the governor went on statewide television the night of February 11, 1970, to talk to the people of Massachusetts. What Sargent said that night provoked gasps among many who had never heard a governor publicly admit error.

“Four years ago, I was the commissioner of the Department of Public Works – our road building agency. Then, nearly everyone was sure highways were the only answer to transportation problems for years to come. We were wrong.  . . . Are we really meeting our transportation needs by spending most of our money building roads? The answer is no.”

Sargent ordered a moratorium on the completion of the massive interstate highway network that had been envisaged since the late 1940s. He stopped in its tracks the interstate projects that were designed to double down on the worst transportation planning of the mid-20th century, the planning that took as a given that people did not want to live in cities, that those who remained there wanted out, and that urban neighborhoods had to give way to the needs of suburban commuters who only wanted to get in and out of the city as quickly as possible. This bias, made manifest by the construction of the destructive and ultimately ineffective Central Artery, was already obsolete in 1970, but transportation planners for the most part had not kept up with the times. Nor did they have a sense of what people actually wanted.  They were taken aback by the popular citizen activism of that era, as much as they were taken aback by the policy and funding redirection ordered by Sargent.

If you look at the proposed alignments of the two big projects sent to the dustbin by Sargent – the proposed Southwest Expressway and Inner Belt – it’s easy to see how destructive they would have been to the fabric and future of the city. Greater Boston would not be the place it is today had these mega-highway systems been built; indeed, many of the essential elements of its identity and sense of place would not exist. The Southwest Corridor Park and the relocated Orange line to Forest Hills wouldn’t have been built, and neighborhoods from Boston’s Roxbury and South End communities to East Cambridge across the Charles River would have been left to decay and disintegrate under the weight of a massive highway system that likely would have failed to provide decent mobility within a decade of construction. If you use or enjoy or otherwise benefit from these transportation and open space assets, or live or work in these neighborhoods, it’s because Frank Sargent set a new transportation policy course for the Commonwealth 50 years ago.

Sargent’s decision to halt highway expansion and redirect the state’s transportation energy and funding to more sustainable forms of mobility saved the city from a dire fate and was perhaps the most significant pattern break of the second half of the 20th century. That pattern break marked a transition from what had been an almost exclusively auto-centric transportation policy to one that began thinking about the same issues we concern ourselves with today: moving more people and fewer vehicles. It set the stage for the era of governor Michael Dukakis and his transportation secretary, Fred Salvucci, a time of massive reinvestment in public transportation and reform of institutions like Massport.

Sargent’s decision in 1970, reaffirmed two years later, led to a successful effort to change federal law to entitle states to use money they were leaving on the table for rejected interstate highway projects to build transit. That money would later be used to extend the Red Line; relocate the Orange Line; invest in new track and equipment for the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines; and buy out what was still privately owned commuter rail systems.

Moving more people rather than more vehicles is not a sound bite or slogan. It is an economic and moral imperative. We can’t grow our economy sustainably, and we can’t do it in a regionally and socially equitable way, without focusing on reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled and moving a significant number of people out of their cars an onto transit and rail alternatives. That’s why we need to ramp up investment in regional rail, the frequent all-day service that would entice many commuters to take commuter rail. And it’s why we need to make transit connectivity – projects like the Red/Blue Connector and the Worcester Line rail connection to Kendall Square via the Grand Junction Line – matters of urgent priority. We can’t wait another 25 or 50 years for those projects to achieve completion.  We need it to happen in the short term, or we risk our future.

Sargent delivered a follow-up speech on November 30, 1972. His words resonate through the decades, and give us pause today:

“The problems of transportation have held us prisoner for 40 years and recently that captivity has become intolerable. You, your family, your neighbor have become caught in a system that’s fouled our air, ravaged our cities, choked our economy and frustrated every single one of us. To move ourselves, our goods and our services, we’ve built more and more and bigger and better superhighways and expressways. They seemed the easiest, most obvious answer to our multiplying needs. What we misunderstood was what those highways would create: massive traffic congestion.”

We no longer misunderstand the connection between a slavish adherence to auto mobility and economy-crippling traffic congestion. We see it every single day.  Our current traffic congestion – the worst in the nation – is not the result of a good economy, as some would have you believe.  It is the result of decades of bad planning and failure to be properly attentive to the words of Sargent 50 years ago.

Frank Sargent was everything you’d expect from a real leader. He was bold in thought, decisive in action, and he didn’t pander to the status quo. He explained his thinking to Massachusetts residents in plain, direct language. And he made his rhetoric actionable by empowering his cabinet and staff to carry out his vision for a more sustainable Massachusetts. Over the decades, especially since the end of the Dukakis era, we’ve largely lost our way. My own efforts as transportation secretary during the Great Recession 10 years ago unfortunately proved largely inadequate – we had a few important achievements, but they did not materially move the needle in the right direction. We remain adrift on a sea of ideological resistance to raising the revenue we need to do the job, still fully in the grip of a stubborn auto-centric mentality that would prefer to see us all stuck in the worst traffic congestion in the nation rather than invest in a modern electrified regional rail system.

We can learn from our history or we can willfully ignore it. Gov. Charlie Baker’s strong support for the Transportation Climate Initiative could be another pattern break – introducing a fair, transparent, and strategic approach to responding to the carbon impacts of vehicles powered by fossil fuels. Legislative support for a new regional road pricing initiative that would finally bring regional equity to metro Boston and enable stepped-up investments in regional rail would be another pattern break. All eyes are on the State House as it advances these critical initiatives.

Meet the Author

Massachusetts should celebrate the memory of Frank Sargent and recognize his groundbreaking achievement: telling us the truth about our transportation failures and how to achieve a better mobility future that would pollute less, respond to our access needs, and provide better mobility for everyone. He asked us to understand both the risks and the opportunities. Fifty years ago Frank Sargent spoke to the people of Massachusetts about their transportation future.  His words resonate powerfully even today, and we ignore them at our own risk.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board.