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.