The city's initial plan was to demolish the aging structure, but that would have cost tens of millions and meant major disruptions to the neighborhoods through which the line runs, so nothing was done. In 1999, Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded Friends of the High Line to work for preservation of the structure. The saw an opportunity to create a new urban park through crowded neighborhoods starved for trees, flowers, and sunlight. Cities in Europe had already created similar parks, so the idea had been tested and some of those parks had been successful. So the Bloomberg administration accepted the basic idea and commissioned an engineering study of the line to find out if transformation was feasible.
The study showed that while the underlying structure of the line was stable, still capable of holding up two freight trains, the surface material was contaminated with lead paint, asbestos, PCBs, and all manner of other noxious substances. Before the line could become a public park, all of that material would have to be removed. One option being considered, just leaving the line the way it was and letting people visit, disappeared; the line was so loaded with toxins that it had either to be demolished or completely renovated. The need to strip the line back to its steel and concrete supports raised the cost of construction to $152 million, so that the $40 million raised by the Friends of the High Line was nowhere near enough. But that was the bubble years, so the city was flush with money, and after 9-11 everybody wanted to invest in the city, so the Bloomberg administration raised the money and construction began in 2006. The first section opened in 2009, the second this year.
The park is now open and it is generally considered a huge success, visited by thousands of people every day and increasing the value of properties around it. The flower plantings have been especially praised.
But that is a ridiculously simple version of a hugely complex, decade-long saga, and what I want to emphasize about this is the part played by state and federal agencies. As the High Line web site says,
The High Line is preserved through a Federal mechanism called rail-banking which preserves transportation corridors and allows them to be used as trails.The rails to trails program has been hugely successful all over the country, resulting in hundreds of much-used bike and foot trails. It is just the sort of program that would have to be eliminated to make the kind of cuts in "discretionary spending" called for by Republicans. But, you may be thinking, why can't this be done at the local level? Because interstate transportation right-of-ways fall under Federal control, and decisions about how they will be used can't be made without federal input. Without the rail banking program it would probably take an act of Congress to convert a railroad right of way to any other use. The Feds also supply expertise in dealing with the complex legal matters surrounding rights-of-way and other matters. And that's just one agency. The rules about how much of what kind of poisons are tolerable in a public park are set by state agencies, using data collected by the EPA. Likewise rules about handicapped access, the strength of railings, and a million other matters are set by state and federal agencies. I would be willing to bet that at least twenty such agencies had to be involved in planning and executing this project.
It is certainly possible to imagine a system under which the Federal government exercises no such control, and therefore we would not need special laws and agencies to manage these projects. But there are actually very good reasons why interstate railroads are regulated by the Feds; for each state to have its own standards would be a nightmare. Likewise environmental standards could be set locally, or on a project by project basis, but in practice that would also be a nightmare. Imagine trying to get a bunch of local politicians and interest groups to agree that some project is environmentally sound without established guidelines they can refer to.
Life would go on without many of the things that these Federal and state agencies do. But to get along without them it would not be enough to just eliminate Federal programs. We would have to rethink the whole way we allocate power and make decisions, changing thousands of provisions in hundreds of laws; as many states have found, cutting funding to regulatory agencies without changing laws just slows down the construction of everything. I think it makes sense to have Federal agencies that are heavily involved in matters like environmental protection and interstate transportation, and since that is the way we have been doing things for a century, it will not be easy for us to change.