Why Does I-391 Exist?

Before moving to Holyoke, I noticed that there was a short-haul urban highway, I-391. It is a 4.5-mile highway spur that runs on the east side of the Connecticut River through Chicopee, crossing the river into Holyoke where it abruptly terminates. I remembered thinking, this must be a highway planned and built during the Eisenhower era – back when Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee were just beginning to lose manufacturing employment, and transportation planners thought the best way to “save” these cities was to build modern highways right to/through their hearts.


I get an image of an old-timey post-war news reel of black-and-white footage showing cars zipping along freeways, aerial establishing shots of the skylines, and the narrator saying something like:

“Ah, the mighty Pioneer Valley. Home of Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke – titans of manufacturing, jewels of Massachusetts, and bustling metropolises in their own right. Together they make up a rang-a-clang citizenry of over a quarter million, but experts predict that by 1980 the population to more than double. Through efficient, ultra-modern ‘through-ways,’ high-capacity motorcar arteries will connect these three cities and ensure their bright futures.”

Here is what I imagine the roadmap of the future looked like to those planners:

1950 hwy plan

I’m not sure if it hits quite all of the low-income neighborhoods or leaves any shreds of undestroyed downtowns, but it’s a start.

As far as highways go, I-391 is baffling. It serves to connect Springfield and Holyoke, but Springfield and Holyoke are already connected via I-91. It seems like it was built to serve the residents of Chicopee, a city of just 55,000 people. It really should be called “The Chicopee Expressway.” But given how expensive highways are (around $30 million per mile in urban areas), it’s unbelievable that such a relatively small city would get its own highway.

When I did a little bit of research on The Chicopee Expressway, I discovered that it was, indeed, planned during the high-water mark of highway planning, the 1950s. It was included in the Master Highway Plan for the Springfield Metropolitan Area, which I unfortunately couldn’t find a digital copy of. But, as described by by Bostonroads.com:

By the 1960’s, it became clear that Chicopee and Holyoke, two old industrial towns facing decline, needed freeway access to improve traffic circulation and reinvigorate their economies. In 1965, these towns received their wish: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts received approval from the Federal government for a 4.5-mile-long spur from Interstate 91. The “Relocated Route 116” also received a new designation: I-391.

The article goes on to explain how the planning and construction of this highway took a full 15 years, beginning in 1967 and finally being completed in 1983. Finishing it seems to have been a real force of will, overcoming construction material miscalculations, labor disputes, and ” the theft of 40 tons of steel from a construction site.”

It is interesting to note a few things about this highway and its intended goals:

  1. If the intention was to revitalize the economies of the three communities served by the highway, then it seems to have failed. The 1980s and 90s were particularly hard on these cities, as evidenced by the continued loss in population (I’ll look at the numbers in a follow-up post).
  2. If the intention was to relieve traffic congestion, then I would anecdotally say it has succeeded tremendously. Though I don’t know if that was through added capacity, or destroying the businesses and neighborhoods around it, or a combination of both.
  3. The through lanes, viaducts and bridges constructed for this highway are going to reach the end of their useful lives in the next 15 or 20 years. We should think hard about what to do once that happens.

I’ll finish this post with a suggestion: Tear it down.

The Chicopee Expressway might have made sense in 1953, but it makes no sense today. We should just get rid of it and work on stitching back together the neighborhoods in Chicopee that have for so long been cut off from the rest of the city. As I’ll demonstrate in future posts, the negative impacts from urban highways are no less severe in the Pioneer Valley, and this highway is low-hanging fruit for removal.


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