Reviewing Politics and Freeways

I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to track down the parties responsible for some dunderheaded planning decision and ask them what they were thinking.  In more violent moods, I confess to wanting to track them down and do more than ask them more than a question.

That’s why the premise of Patricia Cavanaugh’s Politics and Freeways was so intriguing to me:  the book aims to be an oral history of the contruction of the Interstates in the Twin Cities, as told by the engineers and policymakers giving birth to them, and the activist groups intending to abort.  Sensibly but frustratingly, the persons interviewed for the book were kept anonymous, probably for reasons like the second sentence of this blog post.

Mysteriously, the book never really picks up its mission, and relies more heavily on newspaper articles and government documents than the dozens of interviews the author conducted.  While that move gives Politics and Freeways more legitimacy as a history, it robs the book of the personal touch that would have made it a more compelling story.  At a slim 125 pages, I think the book could have incorporated more of those personal perspectives and emerged perhaps a bit more frayed but  not overly long.  At the very least, an appendix with transcripts of the interviews would have been valuable.

Politics and Freeways is still a good read for anyone interested in local history or the influence of politics on infrastructure.  The coverage of the early era of Interstate construction, that of I-35 and I-94, is a bit short, but still summarizes the action and provides useful details.  For example, the route of I-94 originally followed the design of City Planning Engineer Hermann Olson through the Seward neighborhood, crossing the river around 26th Street, but was detoured to its present route through the mechanations of the wealthy and connected downtown business interests.  Cavanaugh seems to mostly take her interviewee’s word for it, crediting the efficacy of citizen advocacy for burying the planned elevated segments of I-94 through St Paul, when really the generous layer of topsoil in the Twin Cities made a sunken construction cost-competitive with the extensive framework of an elevated freeway.  In a final dubious detail, Cavanaugh cites a Minneapolis Star article pricing the 9-odd miles of I-94 built in the 60s at $80m, which would be around $490m today.  Excuse my skepticism that a project that purchased and destroyed some 80 blocks of fully-developed urban fabric cost around the same as I-394, which was built largely on existing right-of-way.

I’m not as interested as Cavanaugh in the era from the 70s to the 90s, in which freeway construction was delayed and eventually forced to incorporate (or at least appear to consider) the opinions of neighbors.  This era saw the cancellation of I-335, the planned segment that leveled several blocks of Old St Anthony so commuters from New Brighton would be able to shave off a minute or two of their drive. Cavanaugh does a good job of describing the debate that occurred in this era, and how the cancellation of this segment was as much due to the development of the I-394 downtown spur as a replacement as due to the efforts of city activists to stave off more destruction.  I wish the author had devoted as many words to the earlier era as she did to this one.

Ultimately the historical documentation in Politics and Freeways succumbs to Cavanaugh’s academic interest in creating lessons out of the events she describes.  While the latter is valuable, what we really need is the former.  The Interstates impact most of us every day to some degree, and most of us have never lived a life without them, but it is important to imagine what life was like before they were built and the process that led to their construction if we are to truly understand our options in future transportation decisions.  To that end, Patricia Cavanaugh does us a great service with her book.  If you have wasted any time reading my blog, I urge you to spend it more wisely in the future by reading Politics and Freeways.

9 comments on “Reviewing Politics and Freeways

  1. Froggie says:

    A map similar to Hermann Olson’s existed in 1946 (at least that’s what it was dated as). I think I found it at the MN History Center library.

    On my website, I have a map that shows the alternative alignments considered for I-94 through/around downtown, from the early ’50s.

    BTW, the 394 spur was never meant as a replacement for 335. Both were actually planned around the same time.

    • Most of the projects shown on the map I posted existed in some form or another since the 30s – if you haven’t seen it, you should check out a book called “A Report on a Survey of Traffic on Major Arterial Streets and Trunk Highways and Recommendations and Plans for the Improvement of Traffic Facilities” put out by the City Planning Commission in 1940. You can find it along with other zany freeway proposals in the 2nd floor stacks of the Mpls Central Library. There are some more Hermann Olson maps from that book that I’ll get around to posting one of these days.

      Sorry I misrepresented 394 as a replacement for 335 – I should have said that it was politically a replacement, since the highway-humping downtown businesses preferred the 394 spur anyway, they didn’t fight as hard for 335. I’ll try to post the actual quote from the book tonight.

      Your map is interesting – Cavanaugh didn’t get into the Lowry Tunnel fight much but for one thing it seems way cheaper than the alternatives on your map. She was very clear on the plans for river crossing at 26th – I’ll see if I can dig up the source for that tonight too.

  2. Froggie says:

    Forgot to mention this map too (I’ve disabled hotlinking, so you may have to copy/paste the URL. It’s a quick map I did showing all the freeway proposals over the years within the city. With the modern alignment of I-94 vice the 1946-proposed alignment.

    • Cool map – you should think about adding a line for the Washington Ave freeway as that was a pretty big priority for city planners in the 50s – it was included in most of the plans for the Gateway renewal project.

      • Froggie says:

        I deliberately left Washington Ave off because that freeway proposal is what morphed into I-94. Had the plans of the ca. 1963-64 era came to fruition, EVERY freeway on my map would have been built.

  3. mulad says:

    I’m a bit confused by your statement about Prospect Park residents causing I-94 to be redirected from going along 26th Street — is that what you meant to say? Did you mean to talk about Seward/Longfellow residents? I have a hard time believing the Prospect Park neighborhood wanted to bring the highway closer to them (and, judging by Olson’s map, it looks like they lost land to the project).

    • Reading over it again, I misinterpreted the author’s description of the events. Cavanaugh describes the Prospect Park neighborhood as preferring the 26th St river crossing, but downtown business interests and the University prevailing in the decision, resulting in the existing alignment. However, Cavanaugh later in the book touts the Prospect Park experience as a success because they gained experience with “coalition-building,” even though they failed to reach their objective. Probably this is another case of the author taking her interviewees word for it in giving a positive tone to the neighborhood’s efforts, but I should have checked it over more thoroughly, so I apologize.

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