25th Anniversary of Westway

09/29/2010 11:09 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In New York City's long tradition of fighting City Hall, one of the most spectacular examples happened a quarter century ago this week.

It was 1985, when local elected representatives, community members, transportation and environmental advocates, fiscal conservatives and the U.S. Congress forced State and City officials to "trade-in" a planned Interstate highway and river development project known as Westway. The highway would have been built off of Manhattan's West Side and been partly constructed through landfill poured in the Hudson River.

The federal share of Westway's pricetag - $1.725 billion - was reallocated to fix our crumbling subways and buses (more than $1 billion) and to a more modest rehabilitation of West Street (several hundred million.)

Westway's supporters saw the project as a way to gain money from Washington and provide development opportunities off of the West Side of Manhattan. The highway's failure to move forward was another sign of how hard it was to advance construction projects in New York, they claimed.

Opponents saw the project as a misguided allocation of precious federal dollars at a time when our transit network was staggering under decades of inadequate funding. In the early 1980's, riders were plagued by derailments, track fires, crime, breakdowns, slow and unreliable service, boarding vehicles with non-working doors, inadequate lighting and graffiti.

For us, winning more than a billion dollars for transit was the right priority, as was keeping landfill out of the Hudson River.

This debate still goes on a quarter of a century later. For me, it is the vivid memories and lessons learned that linger:

- In June 1984, hearings were held by the feds at a hotel near Madison Square Garden. Hundreds of New Yorkers showed up. The Straphangers Campaign was one of the groups that helped pull a pre-hearing rally together. Westway supporters had construction workers in hard hats. But, as the New York Times reported we had a guitar and song, "which ended with the line, ''They paved the Hudson River, to put up the Westway project." "It was written by Seth Frazier of the Straphangers Campaign... one of the organizers of yesterday's rally."

Lesson: As they say in the musical Gypsy: "You gotta have a gimmick if you want to get ahead."

- In the January of 1985, after years of debate - and with the first Army Corps of Engineer's permit declared illegal by the federal courts - the Corps of Engineers again granted a permit for Westway to go ahead. Supporters called a news conference. Twenty-five minutes after the event was scheduled start - as reporters crushed and jostled around us - the planned MC had not shown up. One of the politicians leaned over to me and said, "Show time." I ran the news conference.

Lesson: Be prepared. Better have your facts and figures down cold.

- To further the "inevitability" of Westway, the State and City held a rally on a West Side pier, There were hundreds of yards of bunting and speeches by the Governor and Mayor. And the Tottenville High School marching band!

Lesson: Government will pull out all the stops to convince the public it is going to win.

But then, in early September 1985, two things happened on the same day: An appellate court upheld a lower court decision that voided the Corps's Clean Water Act permit for Westway. Later that day, the House of Representatives voted 287 to 132 to block Federal funds for Westway landfill.

As is so often the case in community battles, Westway's trade-in did not end the story. Manhattan's West Side has remained the focus of many intense battles over the last 25 years. That includes continued plans to develop in the Hudson River, the below market value of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's sale of West Side Rail Yards to developers and Mayor Bloomberg's unlamented West Side stadium.

The big bang of all these struggles was the fight to stop Westway. That's why it is so important to savor its history and celebrate this winning fight against City Hall.