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I-84's Viaduct In Hartford Needs Replacing; Some Say Do Away With It

Don Stacom

March 21, 2010

The elevated stretch of I-84 that carves through the west side of Hartford into downtown is often criticized as brutally ugly, disruptive, noisy and a bottomless pit for expensive maintenance.

On the other hand, none of that keeps motorists away: About 175,000 vehicles a day cross the section of the interstate known as the Aetna Viaduct, making it the most heavily traveled section of highway in the state.

That's just part of what complicates the debate over what to do about the aging structure. Rough estimates suggest that Connecticut would need $1 billion just to replace it and almost certainly more perhaps much more to redesign it and reconnect the neighborhoods that were sliced up when the highway came through in the mid-'60s.

Map: I-84 Viaduct

The state has known for years that it's facing a hugely expensive and politically contentious decision about the three-quarter-mile long viaduct, which has been degraded by decades of relentless traffic and ruthless New England weather. This week, city residents will hear just how difficult the choices will be.

"It's a structure that's really outlived its life span," David Spillane, a principal in the Goody Clancy architectural design firm, said last week. "It's a large sinkhole for the state for ongoing maintenance dollars."

After months of study, Spillane and a team of consultants will put forward on Thursday several options for dealing with the viaduct, along with very rough cost estimates. When they gave preliminary findings at the 1,000 Friends of Connecticut's annual meeting last week, reactions among members of the advocacy group were mixed.

"We don't need a Big Dig in Hartford," one listener said.

"No matter what you do, everyone is going to be unhappy," said another.

Connecticut's choices are to rebuild the viaduct with a few improvements, convert it into a surface-level boulevard, dig a Boston-style tunnel to run it underground or perhaps try some combination of those choices, according to the consultants.

For the short- to mid-term, the state Department of Transportation is paying Manafort Brothers Inc. about $22 million to repair the viaduct to keep it in reasonably good shape.

"It's a fairly substantial overhaul. They're working on everything from the deck to the structural steel to the expansion joints," DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said. "It's about a 10-year fix."

In the longer term, though, the viaduct essentially a back-to-back series of more than 40 short bridges in each direction will have to be replaced, the DOT acknowledges.

Some Hartford community leaders see that as a way to reclaim acres of wasted, unsightly downtown land beneath the overhead highway and its many ramps.

Urban planners blame I-84 for dividing the North End from the rest of the city, and for isolating about 10,000 workers at Aetna and The Hartford from the restaurants, shops, museums, condos and apartments downtown. The result, they say, is that an enormous percentage of the best-paid workers in Hartford hardly see the city as they commute from suburbs, leaving its downtown without the night life and vitality it needs.

Yet the most attractive solutions may be too expensive or simply impossible.

Lowering I-84 between Sisson Avenue and Broad Street to surface level, or dropping it still lower in a trench or tunnel, would interfere with city streets, the Amtrak line and the route of the proposed New Britain busway, which all run below the highway. The Park River, which runs in an underground channel, also meanders under the highway, which further complicates planning.

Environmentalists and mass transit advocates recommend reducing I-84's volume, but planners say that's not as easy as it sounds.

Nearly half of the viaduct traffic is just passing through, according to a DOT survey. That includes a large number of tractor-trailers and long-haul buses, along with drivers headed to Massachusetts or New York. That traffic isn't feasible to reroute onto city streets, planners say.

Another 50 percent of the vehicles begin or end their trips in Hartford, mostly inbound or outbound commuters. Without substantially improving mass transit options, most of that traffic, too, is best served by a highway, according to planners.

"This is an opportunity and a challenge," Spillane said.

The nonprofit HUB of Hartford Committee is examining options for replacing the viaduct, and will have Spillane and other consultants give their initial reports on Thursday at the Hartford Public Library.

There will be an open house from 4 to 5:30 p.m., when the audience can look at sketches and documents, and a workshop from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. to discuss the alternatives.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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