The Aetna Viaduct, the elevated section of I-84 that runs from Sisson Avenue to downtown through the heart of Hartford, reached the end of its 40-year projected life in 2005. State Department of Transportation officials did an engineering report the following year and said they'd repair it in place and maybe think of something else later.
But in early 2007, a group of citizens rose and said, emphatically, no. We do not want $100 million in taxpayer money spent to prop up this mistake for another 20 or 40 years. We would like our city back, thank you. They understood that the unfortunate placement of the highway had cut the city in half, creating a barricade that separates the North End and Asylum Hill from the Capitol area and downtown.
The highway also renders some land unusable, increases tailpipe pollution and adds a griminess to what was a lovely downtown.
The message resonated. The original group of neighborhood, business and planning people, called the Aetna Viaduct Alternatives Committee, has morphed into "The Hub of Hartford." It's attracted federal and city funds. Mayor Eddie Perez is on board.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the DOT is as well. The department, for whom removing a highway would be a novel experience, has nonetheless joined the effort (and will also make safety repairs to the viaduct).
Goody Clancy, a well-regarded Boston urban design firm chosen last fall, has begun to study whether the present highway can — by decking, "Little Dig" tunneling, boulevarding, diverting or some combination thereof — be removed, lowered or made less a barrier to the flow among Hartford's neighborhoods.
This is still at an early stage, with much more work to do. Whatever does happen is not going to happen quickly. Some hoped-for solutions may be unrealistic.
That said, if the Hub folks are the catalyst for rejoining Hartford's urban fabric, they will have performed one of the greatest feats of civic activism in the city's long history.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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