Rocky’s Road

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In the end, however, even after the full course of administrative review had been run and the project was approved, there remained widespread feeling among many interested parties, especially Representative Ottinger and the conservation interests he represented, that the Hudson River had not been very well protected at all; that in fact it had been betrayed. This feeling was so strong that in 1968 it impelled a lawsuit by an ad hoc group called the Citizens Committee for the Hudson Valley, joined by the national Sierra Club as well as the village of Tarrytown, through which the expressway was routed. On narrow technical grounds the lawsuit was successful in blocking construction of the expressway, at least temporarily.

While legal action was in progress, the handling of the expressway was investigated in Congress by the Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Subcommittee of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, chaired by Congressman John D. Dingell of Michigan.

The inquiry was understandable enough, for in this case considerable legislative effort had been expended to insure acceptable and informed administrative decisions; there had been much public participation, and a number of presumably neutral or uncommitted agencies had been brought in. Yet a highly questionable decision had resulted. What had gone wrong? Among other things, the Special Subcommittee uncovered the footprints of a political pas de deux danced by Governor Rockefeller and Secretary of the Interior Udall.

To appreciate fully the politics of the expressway dispute and its implications for the Interior Department, one must recall a little history. In 1956, some years before the riverside route for the expressway was adopted, Interstate 87 was proposed as part of the federal interstate system, to run several miles to the east of the river- right through the heart of the 4,180-acre Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills. It would pass within two hundred yards of Nelson Rockefeller’s home—once the home of the family patriarch, John D. Rockefeller—and about one hundred yards from the house of Laurance Rockefeller. In 1958 Nelson Rockefeller was elected governor of New York; the proposed routing for !-87 was never heard of again.

During the next few years various proposals were made for rerouting the highway both east and west of the Rockefeller estate, among them a western alignment approximately skirting the Hudson River bank. As late as 1962 the New York Department of Public Works vigorously opposed the western route. Its commissioner noted that such a route would: (1) confine costly facilities to a narrow corridor without provision for the greatest traffic needs of the region; (2) serve only locally originated or locally bound traffic; and (3) lead an additional four to six lanes of traffic into the already frequently overburdened New York State Thruway.

In 1965 Secretary of the Interior Udall wrote, “Frankly, I do not believe that a high speed Expressway serving commercial and industrial traffic would contribute to this objective [of preserving the river’s “irreplaceable values”]. Indeed, it would destroy the very access that, wisely conserved and developed, could return the Hudson River to the people.”

At the same time, the Secretary wrote another letter to the Secretary of Commerce, urging that no federal funds be appropriated for the expressway: “Such an expressway in the highly scenic and significantly historic corridor along the Hudson River would seriously impair the values which we are all trying to preserve.” In 1966 an Interior Department report titled Focus on the Hudson recommended that the proposed expressway “not be constructed.”

By the time the riverside expressway proposal reached final form, certain changes had been made, among them the strategic—though costly to New York State taxpayers—conversion from a federal interstate highway to one financed wholly by the state, insulated from federal control. Additional provisions were made for river-front parks (on land donated by the Rockefellers) and for increased access to the river. Those factors were often cited in support of the expressway, though objectors continued to ask—without any satisfactory response—why desired parks and access could not be provided without a highway.

In any event, in 1965 the New York legislature passed a statute authorizing the expressway. That law, the subject of much subsequent controversy, moved through the legislature at record speed. The bill was not calculated to capture attention. It lacked the usual descriptive title and route identification numbers that would have brought it to the notice of local legislators and citizens.

 

The bill was reported out of the senate rules committee on May 12, 1965, and on the same day received its second and third readings; it passed the senate without hearings or debate. Fifteen days later it passed the assembly, also without hearings or debate, and the next day was signed by Governor Rockefeller. A local assemblyman who tried to recall the bill, noting that the road would run through his district, was told he was too late; it was already being rushed by special courier to New York City for the Governor’s signature. Two state senators were later quoted as saying they had voted for the bill in error, believing it was just a routine highway study bill. One of them said, according to A. Q. Mowbray, “I have been deluded. I am ashamed.”

In his Road to Ruin (Lippincott, 1969), p. 160