Assistant to the Director
On Friday, June 27, 1956 President Dwight Eisenhower signed the greatest public works act in this country’s history. The Federal Interstate Highway Act committed the federal government to pay 90% of the cost of building 41,000 miles of highways over the following ten years to connect 90% of American cities with a population greater than 50,000. Before this act, the federal government covered only 50% of construction costs. In New York, Construction Coordinator Robert Moses had already persuaded Congress to change its original plans and include within the Act those roads leading to toll bridges. Among Moses’s proposals were the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964 (see photo from the Archives City Council Collection 05.002.12232) linking Brooklyn and Staten Island, the Throgs Neck Bridge (opened in 1961 with its approach roads financed by the federal government) connecting the Bronx and Queens, and two Manhattan highways that never happened—cross-town routes along 30th Street and Broome Street that would have defaced Manhattan’s streetscape.
Nowhere in Moses’s plans, however, was there any provision for mass transit as part of this highway construction. While planning the Van Wyck Expressway in Queens, Moses adamantly refused to allocate any money for a mass transit line to run along the center median to Idlewild (now Kennedy) Airport. Fifty years later at a far greater expense, mass transit was built between Jamaica and Kennedy Airport, running along the Van Wyck median.
One Moses project that got completed was the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx, connecting the Triborough Bridge and the New England Thruway. At the opening of the Bruckner Expressway in 1962, Mayor Robert F. Wagner nonetheless warned that constructing new highways not only did not end traffic bottlenecks, but encouraged additional traffic. He said: “The trouble with expressways is that the minute they are opened, if they are good, they attract increasing amounts of traffic; and then, during peak traffic hours, they, too, become choked up, and movement can easily become paralyzed.” For Mayor Wagner’s complete comments, click here. Mayor Wagner called for more funding for mass transit. Mass transit has a capacity of moving 40,000 to 50,000 people an hour; in contrast, standard highways move 1,500 cars an hour. This debate over funding for mass transit or highway construction still rages today.