Unbuilt Boston: The Ghost Cloverleaf of Canton

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federally funded highway project, people in the affected neighborhoods organized a massive campaign to get the project cancelled. Fred Salvucci, an MIT civil engineering graduate and transportation advisor to Boston Mayor Kevin White—and later transportation secretary under Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis—became one of the project’s loudest opponents. His influence led Representative Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill to famously tell Federal Highway Administration chairman Lowell Bridwell that the Inner Belt and the Southwest Expressway “would create a China Wall dislocating 7,000 people just to save someone in New Hampshire 20 minutes on his way to the South Shore.”

The “Ramp to Nowhere” off I-93 in SomervilleAs sentiment against highway overbuilding gathered across the nation, the Inner Belt and Southwest Expressway projects gradually fizzled, and in 1974 the state traded in the promised federal highway dollars in exchange for mass-transit funding. But even though the expressways went unbuilt, they left artifacts that are still visible around Boston. There’s the Canton cloverleaf; there’s Roxbury’s Melnea Cass Boulevard, whose surprising width is the legacy of the demolition that extended all the way to Tremont Street; and there’s even a “ramp to nowhere,” a spur jutting off the elevated section of I-93 in Somerville where the Inner Belt was supposed to have connected to the interstate.

As we zoom along today’s urban and interstate freeways, we don’t think much about the the cityscape that came before, or of the historical communities and the ribbons of natural landscape that had to be erased to make way for our internal-combustion-driven lifestyles. But in that forest in Canton, there’s a permanent reminder of a road that never was—and of the living neighborhoods that community action and a reexamination of our priorities kept intact.

For more information about the Southwest Expressway and the Inner Belt:

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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13 responses to “Unbuilt Boston: The Ghost Cloverleaf of Canton”

  1. Joe says:

    The interchange in Burlington between MA3 and MA128/I95 is similar. In its current state, it forms a ‘T’ junction, by using only part of the complete cloverleaf. A quick look at Google Maps/Earth shows the unused southeast loop of the cloverleaf, and the straight line where MA3 ends actually continues into the woods a good distance.

  2. Ron Newman says:

    The interchange of Routes 1 and 60 in Revere also has artifacts of what was supposed to happen, but didn’t — an I-95 expressway through the salt marsh and the Lynn Woods up to 128.

  3. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Joe, @Ron —
    Wow, I didn’t know about those two abandoned sites. For other readers who may be interested here’s a link to a Google Maps page showing the the MA 3 – I-95 interchange. And the Revere site that Ron mentions is especially impressive — you can see the earthworks constructed all the way through the salt marsh before the project was called off. Thanks!

  4. Jerry says:

    The politics that brought about this shift were very intricate, not surprisingly. Francis W. Sargent, a Republican, was governor when the brouhaha began and delivered the decision (at the state level)to step on the brakes. Washington, and especially Congress, were reluctant to make such a sharp turn, however — until Indianapolis, where the GOP was strong at the time, found itself confronting a parallel situation. The confluence brought bipartisan agreement on a bill that would let states divert Interstate highway money to mass transit projects. The result in Boston includes the present-day Orange Line, which follows part of that originally planned I-95 corridor through the South End out to Forest Hills.

  5. Randy says:

    Fascinating article, thanks much for thinking to write on this topic. I would have found it interesting regardless, but living in Milton just minutes from the Blue Hills Park as I do, I found it particularly compelling.

  6. Doug Mink says:

    The state is planning to tear down the “Bridge to Nowhere” as part of a project to widen Route 128 and improve flow through the rest of the I-95 interchange. The bridge right now is a major link for non-motorized traffic–hikers and bicyclists–to get across Route 128 without dealing with the constant streams of motorized traffic at the adjacent interchanges on Route 138 and East St. I led a bike ride over it last week, and put the route and pictures
    on my web site.
    We’re starting to work on getting the state to replace the bridge with a bike/ped bridge soon after it is removed.

  7. I must thank you for writing this on many levels. I am the creator of the Little Lanes tour, and I am honored that my work has inspired you to write about this fascinating piece of lost history.
    The article had particular emotional resonance with me as a Cambridge native – the map shows that the B.U. Bridge fly-over would have literally destroyed the neighborhood (in fact the very house!) in which I grew up. I cannot imagine how vastly different my own life would have been had the residents not succeeded in blocking its construction (this is now memorialized by a mural on the side of what is now Micro Center).
    Thanks so much for writing this.

  8. Thank you for linking to bostonroads.com.

  9. Common says:

    Everything has consequences. Rather than manage and plan for growth in population, commerce and traffic, with the understanding that it WILL necessitate the construction of highways, Boston has become a transportation nightmare.

    There is no will to actually make rapid transit truly effective (because, surprise, that calls for money and space as well). Meanwhile two-lane roads like Dorchester Ave., Washington St., and Hyde Park Ave., are way beyond capacity, making it difficult to travel by car, even very short distances, for most of the day. The truth is that the need to use these roads effectively cuts off certain parts of the city from other parts, while adding frustration, danger (especially for pedestrians) and pollution.

    All the nostalgia and sentimentality about “neighborhoods” has to have some limits. Essentially, the same cowpaths that were worn out 100-200 yrs ago are still being used, without regard for necessities of modern life, and its just plain dumb at this point.
    The cost is ridiculously high population density (and property values) and commute times.

  10. Andrew says:

    I have done a lot of research on this topic and find the NIMBY sentiment amazing. People in Boston complain to this day about the Big Dig and its ramifications. However, if the above mentioned project had been done it would never have been needed. It is almost impossible to get any real improvements to the mass transit infrastructure accomplished. Towns almost have to be paid off when a commuter rail extension is proposed. There are miles of proposed T subway extensions, but none of these will ever happen because of constant law suits. Everyone says they want good efficient transportation…as long as someone else has to suffer in the building stage.