You want to talk about ubiquitous?
For commuters, it’s an eternal headache; For meteorologists, a reliable dividing line. Route 128’s even been immortalized in song by the Modern Lovers.
Route 128, America’s first limited access circumferential highway, made its debut right here in Massachusetts, 64 years ago this week.
But David Kruh, co-author of “Building 128,” says that at its outset, almost no one could even imagine it.
"People looked at this project and called it a boondoggle; they called it a highway to nowhere," Kruh said. "They couldn’t imagine how a road 15 miles outside of Boston could ever be really useful to the region."
But by the 1930s, traffic through Boston was a huge problem, and then-state public works chief William F. Callahan had a solution: transform a collection of roads west of the city, built mainly in the 1920s and 30s, into one of the country’s first true highways.
"We deride politicians, we make fun of the bureaucrats, but here’s a guy who really had vision," Kruh said.
And tenacity. It was the depression. Then the war years. The car was not yet king. the suburbs had yet to "happen," And materials were expensive and in short supply.
But Callahan worked the halls of the statehouse, begging and cajoling the legislature for funds. As he cobbled together the money, highway construction began, piece by piece.
A big jolt came after the war, when skilled laborers returned — and with them a changing urban landscape. On August 23, 1951, ribbons were cut, and a parade of politicians and pomp opened the northern stretch of the Yankee Division Highway from Newton to the North Shore. It was an immediate success — and an immediate problem.
"The estimates for traffic volume were for 15,000 cars a day," Kruh noted. "The very first day that Route 128 was open, 50,000 cars jammed Route 128. And that wasn’t just because it was something new, that volume stayed near that level."
So much so that before the southern portion of the highway was completed, they were already adding lanes to the northern stretch. And Kruh says that thanks to another visionary, a young real estate developer named Gerald Blakeley, 128 immediately began attracting more than just commuters.
"He awoke with a start one night with this vision, this idea of how to build these campus-like environments where these college graduates and veterans who were going to college and these MIT students and professors could build these companies on the highway," Kruh said.
America’s Technology Highway was born. Here, Raytheon developed the microwave oven; Digital Equipment Corp., Data General and others essentially invented the minicomputer; and Lotus introduced the modern spreadsheet to millions of users. In 1955 there were about 50 companies located around the highway. By 1967, there were more than 700. With the boom came everything from houses to shopping malls and, of course, more traffic.
"This amazing confluence of all these factors and pressures came together all at once to create what could I think accurately be described as the first 'Massachusetts Miracle,'" Kruh said.
In recent years, 128 has lost some of its high-tech mojo to Silicon Valley, and even Kendall Square. And traffic issues on a road initially built to ease traffic are persistent and worsening. But as maligned as the venerable highway has been, Kruh says that it was, and continues to be, “a remarkable success story.”
"When you think about all of the mortgages that have gotten paid and the cars that have been bought, the hundreds of thousands of people who have been employed, this remarkable economic engine has driven this state and this region to great property," he said.