Interstate 87

The bulldozers can now be seen out in force along Chestnut Ridge, near Bedford in New York’s Westchester County, and this means that the cement mixers and asphalt trucks cannot be far behind. In this one of the many stories that can be told about scores of embattled and divided American communities, Mr. Ritter writes another chapter in the unfolding record of a nation’s compulsion to become a continent of concrete and monoxide. The author, a former correspondent and editor for LIFE, is now director of the Development Projects Division of General Learning Corporation.

by Norman Ritter

HIGHWAYS and their rights-of-way occupy more than fifteen million acres in the United States, the size of the state of West Virginia. The greatest construction project in the history of the world is the building of the National System of Defense and Interstate Highways, which was started in 1956. When completed in 1972 or 1973, this gigantic program will have spawned 41,000 miles of superhighway at an estimated cost of $60 billion.

Because of the inevitability of this expanding highway system, its construction has met with little resistance. Some voices have been raised in protest‚ particularly by citizens directly affected, and lately these voices have grown louder and more numerous. Many cities and towns have become embroiled in arguments over road programs, such as the plan to cut up Swarthmore, the elevated expressway skirting the New Orleans Vieux Carré‚ the Inner Belt in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to mention only a few. But by and large, the resistance has been in vain, and its futility is manifested in mile after mile of new concrete, not all of it an expression of the public weal.

There is no better example of the failure of such protests than the partially built ten-mile stretch of Interstate Route 87 in New York’s Westchester County, the subject of a long and bitter dispute. This six-lane superhighway will be completed through perhaps the most beautiful expanse of country within an hour’s drive from Manhattan. Its estimated cost of $47 million (plus about $5 million for land acquisition) will make it, in the words of Senator Everett Dirksen, “the most expensive rural highway in the nation’s history.”

Placing this essentially intrastate road in the Interstate System was a New York State decision, and it gave Washington veto power over the route favored by most of the state and county bodies. The federal government, with eventual state acquiescence, exercised this veto, selecting a route that was slightly shorter than the one preferred by the state and county. Federal authorities cited cost as their sole criterion, since a shorter route was naturally a cheaper and preferable one provided all other factors were equal. They were not equal‚ however, as we shall see. Moreover, it was the decision to build a federal highway instead of a more modest state road that started the cost estimates for both proposed routes on a steep ascent to financial absurdity.

Despite the opposition of Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, and the outcry of conservationists from all over America, the road will split two wildlife sanctuaries and will sweep the shores of a woodland reservoir. It will knife through hill and dale along its engineered course, even though Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, the New York State Department of Public Works, the State Department of Commerce, the State Department of Conservation, and practically every relevant county and municipal authority preferred an alternate route.

Congress intended that bypassed communities be served by the new superhighways, but Route 87 avoids the populous middle corridor of Westchester, where twisting two-lane roads are choked with ever increasing traffic. Congress also decreed that the states, not the federal government, were responsible for route selections‚ even though the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads of the Commerce Department had to approve the routes and would finance 90 percent of the costs.

Federal highways are born on the drafting tables of state engineers, but long before the plans turn into concrete they are exposed to public hearings, where interested citizens can protest. State highway officials, acting as prosecutor, defense counsel, judge, and jury, then decide whether to pay any attention to the complaints or simply to ratify the route as originally proposed.

If the state highway officials are confronted with an unpopular decision, or if they want to keep their decision a secret, the Bureau of Public Roads will assume the ogre’s role and announce the bad news. The history of Interstate 87 demonstrates how blame may be shifted from the statehouse to the nation’s Capitol. It also shows how people in the path of the bulldozers often fight among themselves trying to shove the road into the other fellow’s backyard.

IN 1956 there was no talk of a federal superhighway in the vicinity of Bedford, a satisfied, prosperous northern Westchester township forty miles north of New York City. Its rugged, wooded countryside, sprinkled with pre-Revolutionary homes and rolling estates, lay outside the belt of suburban sprawl‚ as it does today. Congress authorized and President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act that year‚ but bucolic Bedford seemed unlikely to be affected by the legislation. So did adjacent North Castle, which was comparably rural and content with its narrow two-lane roads.

There was, however, talk of relocating State Route 22, a tortuous north-south artery that ran along the eastern edge of the state and passed through Bedford and North Castle. One of the large Bedford estates threatened with encroachment by relocation of the road belonged to Miss Helen Clay Frick, daughter of the nineteenthcentury steel baron Henry Clay Frick. She created the Westmoreland Wildlife Sanctuary, consisting of 105 acres of former farmland crisscrossed with massive stone fences. It seemed to be an ideal defense against a road because highway planners were known to be extremely sensitive to the distress calls of conservationists.

Many Bedford residents became agitated by the prospect of a new road and decided it was time to act. The town retained a consulting engineer by the name of Charles H. Sells‚ former superintendent of the New York State Department of Public Works. His long experience as a highway engineer qualified him to design the best possible route through Bedford, and he set out to do just that.

In the meantime, the Department of Public Works was developing plans for a north-south superhighway near the east bank of the Hudson River across the county from Bedford. The sixlane New York State Thruway was already completed on the west side of the Hudson, and many people wondered why it was necessary to have superhighways on both sides of the river, particularly when north-south traffic on the east side was already carried by two parkways, a U.S. highway, and several state roads.

The superintendent of the State Department of Public Works, J. Burch McMorran, reported that the Federal Bureau of Public Roads had approved the route, but Sells and others intimately familiar with Interstate 87’s complicated history doubt that this particular route was ever taken seriously. A free superhighway along the east bank would surely have diverted traffic from the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Thruway, both of which charge tolls.

At any rate, before a tree was cut down or a load of cement was poured, the Department of Public Works, with Bureau concurrence, switched signals. Late in 1960, the state and federal authorities agreed upon a more easterly route, across Westchester County. As a consequence, a lot of good Republicans on the east side of Westchester thought they had been victimized by their new governor‚ Nelson Rockefeller. The highway as originally conceived would have cut through Rockefeller’s sprawling Pocanlico Hills estate near the Hudson. The new plan called for using a section of Interstate 287 and would send north-south traffic over a J-shaped path through the county, sparing the pastoral acres of the state’s first family. McMorran said the easterly route would be six miles shorter than the suggested road along the Hudson, thereby saving the taxpayers $57 million. McMorran was soon to develop another scheme to “save" money.

By this time, Sells had submitted to the town board of Bedford a detailed design for the relocation of State Route 22. As he awaited the town fathers’ reaction, he had no idea his recommendation was about to compete with a state-designed route for a link in the Interstate Highway System.

A lifelong resident of Westchester County‚ Sells was an excellent choice to try to save the best of Bedford from the road builders. An articulate, urbane man, Sells had served on a committee of highway engineers that helped draft the FederalAid Highway Act of 1956, and he understood the conflicting requirements of the law: that highways be safe for fast driving, be constructed as economically as possible, and still serve the communities they bypass. In designing his route, Sells tried hard to do the least damage possible to property in both North Castle and Bedford, the two townships affected. Wherever he could, he selected rugged, less valuable property for the right-of-way, sparing the choice bottomland, bird sanctuaries, and fine homes. Bedford’s town fathers were delighted with the plan and forwarded it to the Department of Public Works. After minor modifications by the state, it became known as the Westerly Route.

The Westerly Route passed close enough to Mount Kisco, the trading center of northern Westchester, to provide some relief for traffic congestion in the populous middle corridor of the county, and for that reason the planning board of Mount Kisco and the village board of neighboring Pleasantville approved it. So did the county.

Despite its virtues, the Westerly Route had fatal flaws. It was in the public eye, and this made it a target for the affected property owners, who quickly attacked it. Then, in the spring of 1961, the state announced its own design, which became known as the Chestnut Ridge Route. It was several miles east of the congested mid-county communities and promised them no benefits. It was also seven tenths of a mile shorter than the Westerly Route and therefore, the state estimated, $4.3 million cheaper. A breakdown of the original estimate was never made public, but in 1961 the cost of the disputed segment was said to be about $14 million using the Chestnut Ridge Route.

The Department of Public Works scheduled a public hearing in Bedford to listen to arguments for and against the Chestnut Ridge Route in April, 1961. The week before the hearing, the department announced that the contested route would be a part of the Interstate Highway System, namely Interstate 87. Thus the state would be eligible for a federal rebate of 90 percent of the highway’s costs. The relocation of the state road, on the other hand, would have been only 50 percent federally financed.

The Chestnut Ridge Route was so hastily drawn and carelessly conceived that it didn’t stand a chance against the 900 angry property owners who crowded into the hearing in Bedford that spring evening in 1961. The line on the map marched boldly through Byram Lake Park, the woodland preserve beside Mount Kisco reservoir. It also imperiled several homes and divided Miss Frick’s Westmoreland Sanctuary from older Butler Sanctuary. For twelve hours landowners harangued the department’s officials‚ and when the engineers retreated to their office the next day, they knew they had been in a fight.

A second public hearing was scheduled, this time to hear arguments for and against both routes. Anticipating a good turnout, the Department of Public Works booked an auditorium in White Plains, the county seat, beginning at 1:30 on a weekday afternoon. The crowd of 750 did not fill the hall, but 108 speakers gave the state officials an earful for fifteen and a half hours. By calling an afternoon meeting, the state officials had hoped to give everyone an opportunity to be heard and still adjourn early. But they underestimated the staying power of the protesters.

The hearing began as a distaff affair, but as the commuter trains pulled in that evening, male reinforcements took the floor. Fortified by the sandwiches, coffee, and martinis their wives had brought, they gave the state officials a night to remember. They hoisted placards and balloons in support of their favorite routes and hunks of old sheeting lettered with unflattering remarks about Governor Rockefeller. North Castle Supervisor John A. Lombardi took the opportunity to call Bedford “capricious, arbitrary and gratuitous” for endorsing the Westerly Route without regard for the $2.5 million in North Castle real estate it would destroy. The last orator sat down at 5 A.M.

McMorran reversed the position of the Department of Public Works in 1962 and recommended the Westerly Route for federal approval. In his letter to the Bureau of Public Roads, which he refused to make public, McMorran stressed the advantages of the Westerly Route in serving local traffic. News that McMorran had decided in favor of the Westerly Route was announced indirectly by the Albany regional office of the Federal Bureau of Public Roads. The federal agency said it had rejected the state’s recommendation of the Westerly Route, adding that the Department of Public Works had supported it with a pile of documents two feet high. The Bureau of Public Roads wanted the shorter, cheaper route. So did several of McMorran’s engineers.

ELEVEN Bedford property owners took legal action to block construction of the highway, charging that McMorran, their champion, was “arbitrary‚ capricious and irrational” for finally accepting the judgment of the Bureau of Public Roads. Their petition was turned down after lengthy proceedings, but their maneuvering was enough to keep the bulldozers away for another year. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York held that under state law the superintendent of public works must ignore his own best judgment in order to obtain federal funds for 90 percent of the cost of the road.

A delegation that approached Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had better luck. Appealing to his well-known interest in conservation, a Bedford group asked him to oppose the Chestnut Ridge Route because of the damage it would do to the wildlife sanctuaries.

Udall dispatched two officials of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation to investigate the matter. To gain time for the investigation, Udall wrote Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges, requesting that he suspend all work on the road. “It disturbs me that the proposed highway threatens such an enormous loss to the public of a unique area less than 40 miles from New York City,” Udall wrote. “Once gone, it can never be recovered.”

After receiving the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation’s report, Udall again wrote Hodges, in March of 1964, this time flatly recommending that the Chestnut Ridge Route be discarded in favor of the Westerly Route. Udall also sent Hodges the report, which became the property of the Department of Commerce and was not released to the public. The report was an eloquent plea for the preservation of recreational areas in fast-growing Westchester. It weighed the potential damage to sanctuaries and parklands each route would cause and concluded that the Westerly Route would be less harmful.

It took more than seven months for Hodges to reply to Udall’s letter, and when he finally did, on December 1, 1964, it was to turn down Udall’s recommendation. Hodges resigned a few days later.

John Connor replaced Hodges as Secretary of Commerce, and soon after he took office he and Rex M. Whitton, the administrator of the Bureau of Public Roads in Washington, received a delegation of Bedford residents bent on changing the bureau’s position. Sticking to his cost considerations, Whitton later wrote the group that he saw no reason to reopen the case. Cost alone was apparently not the deciding factor, however. A Hodges deputy, John S. Stillman, later said that political pressures had forced the Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Public Roads to take the stand they did. A member of the Bedford delegation quoted Stillman as saying that Congressman Eugene Keogh of Brooklyn (now retired) was “in this office at least once a week” when the route question was under consideration. Stillman suggested that the anti-Chestnut Ridge Route group find “some way of producing somebody else who is equally influential to whom we have to pay an equal amount of attention.” Keogh, then a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was an old friend of one of the estate owners whose property lay astride the proposed Westerly Route.

While his clients were busy getting nowhere in Washington, Charles Sells retained an appraiser to determine the relative costs of land acquisition along the two routes, a laborious job Sells insisted the state had not bothered to do. The appraiser found that the difference in construction costs between the two routes would be almost offset by the higher cost of land along Chestnut Ridge.

Whitton raised Bedford’s hopes on October 12, 1965, when he wrote McMorran ordering a reexamination of the costs of both routes and a halt to land acquisition along Chestnut Ridge. But McMorran, curiously, was unwilling to rise to the occasion. Instead‚ in a letter to Whitton on February 17, 1966‚ he elected to repudiate his own earlier arguments on the traffic question and to rebut the new Sells estimates, leaving the distinct impression he was now content with the Chestnut Ridge Route.

From one point of view, there was justification for McMorran’s reluctance to reopen the case. The state had already invested millions of dollars in building the sections of Interstate 87 immediately north and south of the contested stretch, and it could not become eligible for its federal rebate until the whole job was done. To redesign the inbetween link would have been costly and timeconsuming.

Now that McMorran had fallen into line, Whitton wrote him a long and friendly letter, dated April 6, 1966, which not only gave final approval to the Chestnut Ridge Route but also expressed the administrator’s philosophy of modern highway engineering. He said that “driving for pleasure is America’s number one outdoor recreational activity,” and “highway officials must lead the way in providing a pleasing highway for this purpose.”

JUST as the long fight appeared to be over at last, dreadful things happened to the cost estimates for the route that was selected primarily for reasons of economy. Last November the Department of Public Works estimated the construction costs of the disputed 8.8-mile stretch and a 1.6-mile connecting link to be $46.7 million, a far cry from the $14 million figure that had long been associated with the “cheaper” Chestnut Ridge Route. A department spokesman said apologetically that the old estimate was “sort of off the top of the head,” thereby confirming Sells’s contention that the state engineers had not bothered to determine the true cost of the route they were so stubbornly advocating.

It is only fair to point out, however, that the route the state invited bids on last December 15 was a much more elegant highway than the 1962 blueprint called for. For one thing, Mrs. Lyndon Johnson’s highway beautification program enacted by Congress in 1965 required the engineers to add two lanes, making Interstate 87 a six-lane expressway. Median strips had to be widened, too, and so did the right-of-way. Provision was made for retaining walls where the road was to cut between Butler and Westmoreland sanctuaries‚ and there was to be a vehicular bridge to link the two refuges. Inflation was also a factor in the higher estimate. So were unexpectedly high excavation costs, which further shook public confidence in the project. In sum, it was to be a fine road at a fabulous price. At $5 million per mile, it was to be costlier than comparable roads through urban areas where land was more expensive.

A Bureau of Public Roads spokesman commented in rather equivocal language, but his message was clear: “We are not ordering New York to go ahead and we are not shoving the road down their throats. But we will not tell New York to hold off, either. New York could give up the road altogether — but I don’t know what it would do with all the cars.” In Albany, a Department of Public Works official agreed that the state was not being forced to go ahead, but said it would have to build the road by 1972 in order to receive federal funds already allocated.

Enter now a spirited citizens’ group whose valiant effort to halt the road builders dead in their tracks was perhaps the most dramatic chapter in the longhistory of the struggle. Known as the Road Review League, the group was composed of some five hundred residents of thirty-two New York communities, only a few of whom lived in or near the Chestnut Ridge roadbed. Formed in May of 1966‚ the league advocated the “intelligent planning of transportation, recreation and other public facilities with the goal of protecting the rights of citizens and the development and improvement of the community.” It took part in an unrelated highway squabble last year, and during the 1966 campaign season, Sought to persuade candidates of its planning and conservation aims.

Convinced that only legal action could stop the road at such a late hour, the Road Review League, on February 3, 1967, filed suit against Secretary of Transportation Alan S. Boyd, whose new department had assumed jurisdiction over the Bureau of Public Roads‚ and acting Secretary of Commerce Alexander B. Trowbridge, because of the Commerce Department’s prior involvement in the matter. The league charged that the defendants had been “arbitrary and capricious” in their selection and approval of the Chestnut Ridge Route. Other plaintiffs were the town of Bedford, a Bedford citizens’ association, the two sanctuaries, and several affected property owners. The Sierra Club intervened on the side of the plaintiffs.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, sought a permanent injunction against construction of the route. The plaintiffs were not proposing an alternate route, although some of them clearly wanted it; they just wanted to stop the highway that had been approved. The federal attorneys argued that the court had no power to review an action of the Bureau of Public Roads. It was no mere tactical motion, for there was indeed no legal precedent for the suit the Road Review League had succeeded in bringing to trial. Judge Edward C. McLean acknowledged that the motion “raises difficult questions of federal judicial power, neither of which is free from doubt.” But he gave “the benefit of the doubt to the plaintiffs.” He ruled: “I see nothing in the Highway Act which indicates a congressional intent to immunize the Bureau of Public Roads from judicial scrutiny of its acts.” He also denied a defense contention that the plaintiffs, being ordinary citizens, had no right to contest the administrative decision of the federal agency.

The league’s attorneys failed to prove that improper political influence had decided the issue, but the testimony contained revealing glimpses of old pressure points.

Former Congressman Keogh denied that he had been a regular visitor to the Secretary of Commerce’s office whenever the Interstate 87 question came up, as Stillman had said. But he did confess that he had maintained a steadfast stand on the route matter as a representative of a district in Brooklyn, more than forty miles from the affected area. “I had a position that I would not diverge from,” he testified, “and I sought to resist all pressure generated.”

Having dismissed the political argument, Judge McLean had to decide whether the federal officials involved in the route decision had acted arbitrarily and capriciously. It was not enough that they might have acted wrongly.

“The central question,” he said from the bench, “is this: Was the decision — made in good faith — so arbitrary and capricious within the terms of the Administrative Procedures Act that it should be overthrown?”

Admittedly troubled by the complexity of the case and the voluminous documents he had to master, McLean expressed sympathy for the plaintiffs on several occasions during the five-day trial. But the difficulty of rolling back a project that had gathered such momentum also was weighing on his mind, for he observed that “a lot had happene after that original recommendation [of the Bureau of Public Roads in 1962]. . . . The U.S. District Court cannot run the Bureau of Public Roads, and I cannot decide where to put the road; my scope and power are limited.”

This remark was a portent of his decision two weeks later, on April 28, 1967‚ refusing to grant an injunction. He said he found that the federal officials had “acted honestly throughout and their decision was based upon what they in good faith believed to be the merits of the question.”

McLean also had to consider that the state had entered into a $26 million contract for construction of the disputed route, and $10 million had already been committed. He suggested that the plaintiffs could have sued when Whitton reaffirmed the route selection on April 6, 1966, before work was begun. While he could not find cause to grant an injunction‚ McLean evidently had doubts about the wisdom of the Bureau of Public Roads’ decision, for he said in his ruling, “The administrative decision was not wrong enough to permit the court to upset it.”

The federal judge’s decision cleared the way for the bulldozers to shift into high gear just as the last traces of winter were disappearing in northern Westchester. The next lawsuits would be filed by disgruntled landowners who were not satisfied with the prices the state was offering them for slashing across their property, leveling an antique barn, or razing a colonial home.

Charles Sells, who has built his share of highways, believes it will be a long time before the state and the federal government hear the last of the Interstate 87 argument. He does not think there is any stopping the road now. “But after it’s built there will be the I-told-you-so boys,” he says. “People will go out on that expensive highway on days when there isn’t a car in sight. And there will be those days.”

In the meantime, traffic snarls in the middle of Westchester grow worse every day. So the Department of Public Works has announced plans to widen a state road to help relieve the congestion. Along the east bank of the Hudson, near where Interstate 87 was originally plotted, another expressway will be built. There are strong arguments in favor of both of these projects. They will be made stronger still by the failure of Interstate 87 to serve the fastgrowing county it will sweep through.