The Aetna Viaduct has reached the end of its useful life. After more than 40 years of service, the elevated highway between Hartford's West End and downtown must either be torn down, renovated or redesigned. The best option is to redesign the highway to reduce its impact on the city without reducing its usefulness, by bringing it to ground level in some places and covering it in others.
The aging expressway is an increasing burden on the city. Between on and off ramps, such as Exit 46 at Sisson Avenue, and the highway itself, the city is deprived of much developable land and the tax revenue it would generate. The highway's broad corridor cut the city in half and turned places that were parts of vibrant neighborhoods into cold, dead space. Great buildings were lost.
Some might suggest we remove the highway altogether. That wouldn't work: More than 185,000 vehicles cross the viaduct each day, making removal of the highway impractical. But if officials understood in the 1960s what the highway would do to the fabric of the city, I like to think they would have built it differently, or somewhere else.
The state Department of Transportation's first choice was to renovate the existing highway. When the department unveiled this plan early last year, it announced that renovations would reduce flow on I-84 to one lane during much of the project. One can only imagine the delays.
Whatever the DOT decides, commuters are going to need alternatives. Expanded bus and rail service will be essential. Trucks and interstate travelers should be diverted to the Merritt Parkway, I-684 and I-91. Because any work will create headaches, now is the time to think critically about the highway and its role in the city. Thanks to a group of civic leaders, dubbed the "Hub of Hartford," the DOT has been persuaded to consider all options. There is a real chance now to do something bold.
By reducing the footprint of on and off ramps and covering or "platforming"
more of the highway through downtown, the city can regain developable land and grow its tax base. The end vision might be a street-level boulevard along the railroad tracks past Aetna heading east, with the highway dipping below ground from the train station nearly to the river, to provide more space for development and allow downtown to reconnect with neighborhoods to the north.
There really aren't many good choices. Removing the highway would sever the ties between our downtown businesses and suburban workers. Renovating the highway as it is will reinforce the poor decisions of the past. Redesigning the highway, partly at ground level and partly covered, remains the last option standing.
* Anton Rick-Ossen of Hartford is a graduate student at Trinity College.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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