Thursday, November 6, 2008

Freeways and the past (planning)

Lexington's planning for a freeway through the middle of town began as part of the Urban Renewal project of the 1960's. See graphic below. It was to run from an interchange with the Louisville-Cattletsburg and Cincinnati-Tennessee highway, now known as I-64/I-75, along the old L&N railroad tracks into town, then along(or replacing) Midland Ave to Main St, swinging south of the downtown district slicing (literally) through the portion called South Hill. Continuing on to an intersection with an extended Newtown Pike, then on to the four-laned Versailles Rd.

It was going to be beautiful. A wide, sweeping gash right through the heart of historic downtown. In order to minimize the damage to the residential fabric of the city, the decision was made do depress the road starting at Main St. until the Newtown interchange. Half of the existing north-south streets would bridge the chasm, while the rest would be truncated. It would be a freeway with miles of beautiful concrete for miles, to try and paraphrase Judge Doom of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

In the past, it had been the railroad that had sliced through town and with it, a station for passengers to get off, right in the middle of town. But railroads were a dying mode of transportation, a relic of the past. Private automobiles were the only way to go, having reemerged to primacy with the upcoming completion of the Interstate system. Passenger trains were too slow, the Interstate will get us there in no time, and this freeway will bring people back downtown, right to the center of town.

Boy, those must have been heady times. WWII and Korea were over, we weren't bogged down in Vietnam (yet)and everything we did was right. We were on our way to the moon. Looking back on it makes me glad that someone thought a little more about things and shot this idea down.

If this debacle had been left alone, can you imagine the relationship between the City and the University? This man-made trench would have created an inhospitable space between the dying commercial, though growing professional city and the academic ivory tower of the University campus. The experiences of other cities have shown us that such freeways have unseen costs in the form of the price paid for separating two parts of a synergistic system. The gap, though only about 150-200 feet wide to begin with, would surely be wider today, as every urban expressway that I've ever seen has had to have extra lanes added. If you build it, they will drive on it.

Add to this the idea of the North-South freeway. Essentially, this was the extension of Newtown Pike. From W. Main St past the East-West to the Southern Railway tracks and along them (or replace them), south to Nicholasville. How in the world the leaders of Lexington thought that they could persuade an active railroad to vacate property, I'll never know. It took years of work to deal with the C&O for the removal of the tracks downtown, and that was with a railroad that was abandoning a line all the way to Ashland, Ky. The Southern Ry. was in the process of expanding its traffic, in particular, their RoadRailer service as their passenger traffic had died. The ICC at the time let railroads do whatever they wanted and the courts backed them up. If this freeway had been built, basically along a drainage divide between the South Elkhorn and the East Hickman Creek basins, it could have split Lexington worse than any railroad.

These are some of the reasons that I am happy that we don't have any freeways through our downtown, and I hope to keep it that way.

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