Rocky’s Road

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Later, Assemblyman Lawrence Cabot went to see the Governor with an armload of protest mail as evidence that the expressway law should be repealed. “The governor just glanced at the mail,” Cabot said, “and listened to my report. Then he said to me, ‘That is odd. I haven’t heard a single objection to the expressway.’ He kept a straight face too. He added that he was determined to build the road.”

Rodgers, William H., Rockefeller’s Follies (Stein & Day, 1966), p. 179

At the same time, the legislature had quickly passed another bill rerouting existing Route 117, which already ran through the Rockefeller estate, to run farther north along the edge of Rockefeller property, eventually joining the proposed expressway at the river. This bill accomplished a long-lived Rockefeller ambition: in 1932, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Governor’s father, negotiated with local governments to move Route 117 out of his estate, but he balked at paying the cost himself.

Of course, with the elaborate system of law governing the Hudson River, neither the New York legislature nor the Governor had the last word. Among the protective devices available was the Hudson River Valley Commission, authorized to put a temporary stop order on such projects as the expressway and to hold hearings. The chairman of the commission, Alexander Aldrich, happened to be a cousin of Governor Rockefeller, by whom he—along with the other members of the commission—was appointed.

Chairman Aldrich wrote the following note to his cousin the Governor:

Judging from past performance, my instinct is that the Commission will want to hold a public hearing on the Expressway … I believe it is extremely unlikely that the Commission will disapprove the road in its final Findings. There is ample precedent for this kind of approval following a public hearing. … If all goes well, the chances are that the Commission will approve the road (possibly with some minor suggestions) on or about Friday, March eighth … I have discussed this time schedule with Bert Hughes [of the State Transportation Department] and he agrees that it sounds reasonable. … Public hearings [by the commission] … will not affect the construction schedule at all.

It came to pass precisely as Cousin Aldrich had predicted: the commission held a hearing, at which only two of forty-three speakers favored the expressway. One of those two speakers, president of a local conservation group, was thereafter repudiated by his own membership. The commission approved the expressway.

If Mr. Aldrich was not quite a detached person, there was still the Department of the Interior to rely upon. In January, 1968, Secretary Udall had a meeting with several representatives of Governor Rockefeller. Though Udall had opposed the expressway idea in 1965 and had been quoted in 1967 as saying that his position had not changed, he had not yet received any of the Interior Department studies in regard to the expressway required for the fulfillment of the department’s legal responsibilities. A memorandum to Udall from Director Edward C. Crafts of Interior’s Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, in preparation for the meeting, recommended that “you take the position that this requires an on the ground look by some top officials in the Department and that you neither favor nor oppose it at the present time. I think this would be tactically wise.”

At this point chronology becomes quite significant. On May 3, 1968, according to Harry Rice, assistant director of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation,

… there was a meeting in Secretary Udall’s office, and he had been briefed by Director Crafts … on a study that had been made of the Hudson River Expressway and at this meeting in the Secretary’s office on May 3 … he asked the Secretary what his position was going to be on the Hudson River Expressway, and the Secretary hesitated for quite some time and then he said, ‘We will not oppose it.’
 

Had Secretary Udall seen any reports on which to base such a position? A Fish and Wildlife Service report was made for the Corps of Engineers as a comment on a land-fill application pending before the Corps. The Corps’ request for the report was made on April 22, 1968, and the Fish and Wildlife Service comments were finally furnished to the Corps in December of that year. The point is simply that the Fish and Wildlife Service study was still in process long after the Secretary announced to his staff that he was not going to oppose the project.

In addition to the Fish and Wildlife Service study, two Interior Department task forces reviewed the expressway proposal, principally from the perspective of recreation. The second task force was not even appointed until July 3, more than two months after Udall had decided not to oppose the project; it was headed by Harry Rice, one of the officials who had been present at the meeting of May 3, when Udall announced his position.