The subject of the meeting last April was what to do about the aging I-84 Viaduct in the center of Hartford. The group had been studying the issue for four years, mostly focusing on the elevated highway. Then someone looked at the map, which was confusing because the highway crossed the railroad line twice, and said, "What if we move the rail line?"
Eureka, in a word. That one idea changed the thinking about the project, and has resulted in what looks like a spectacular plan for undoing the damage wrought by the raised highway without losing transportation capacity. The plan will be presented to the community on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Hartford Public Library, and it is well worth your attention.
The viaduct, once known by the name of the insurance company headquarters that it skirts, is the three-quarter-mile elevated section of I-84 that runs from Sisson Avenue to the edge of downtown. Critics of this bridge-like behemoth say it sacrifices the city to cars, dividing the city's core and creating a barricade that separates the North End and Asylum Hill from the Capitol area and downtown. The highway also renders a lot of land unusable ( it is known as "no man's land"), increases tailpipe pollution and adds a griminess to what was a lovely downtown.
The highway was built in 1965 with a 40-year life expectancy, which came due in 2005. State Department of Transportation officials did an engineering report the following year and said they'd repair the viaduct in place for $100 million or so and maybe think of something else later.
But, bless them, a group of citizens rose up and said, in effect, "Keep this monstrosity in place for another 20 or 40 years? Are you nuts? We'd like the city back. Let's think of something else." The message struck a chord. The original group of neighborhood, business and planning people, now called "The Hub of Hartford Steering Committee," attracted the support of city officials and the Capital Region Council of Governments.
Remarkably, the DOT, which never met a highway it didn't love and can be reliably counted on to defend its mistakes, got on board. Money was found for a study, and more than a half-dozen top-tier planners, sensing the chance for a signature project, bid for it.
It went to the folks at Goody Clancy, a well-regarded Boston urban design firm, who've been working with the Hub committee and others for more than a year weighing possible alternatives for the viaduct — everything from another viaduct to a tunnel to a surface boulevard.
The breakthrough, or so it appears, was the suggestion (from Place contributors Toni Gold and Bill Mocarsky, I'm told) to move the railroad tracks north of the highway. For most of the 150 years the railroad tracks have been there, it would have been impossible to move them, because they served adjacent factories. Those are now gone, unfortunately, but the silver lining is that it's possible to realign the tracks.
This gives rise to what the plan calls "Alternative Concept 2," in which I-84 becomes an at-grade roadway through the city, just south of the newly realigned tracks. This seemingly simple idea is a grand slam for the city, and at least a triple for DOT and Amtrak.
The city will get to reclaim 15-20 acres of prime land close to Union Station, including developable land along the western edge of Bushnell Park, where the report recommends a new street be built, plus more land in the Sisson Avenue area. There is the chance to reconnect streets severed by the highway and connect Asylum Hill to downtown with a bike/ped path.
Amtrak likes the idea because it won't have to replace and maintain the century-old Asylum Avenue rail overpass.
The DOT likes the idea because it won't have to maintain an elevated highway, which is considerably more expensive than keeping up a surface road. Indeed, according to a preliminary cost analysis, the surface road is least expensive option to build and maintain, compared with a new viaduct or, especially, a tunnel (the cost of a tunnel, along with some complications from the underground Park River, make it an unlikely option). Additionally, with the road at grade, it becomes relatively easy to finish the downtown platforms, getting a full downtown surface for the first time in many decades.
Obviously there's much still to do to get it right. Ramps have to be designed. The new busway and commuter rail projects have to be worked into the project, a vital step. I-84 in Hartford is now the busiest highway in the state, with 175,000 cars a day, and transit options are essential. With the surface road and the bus and train, the city will be a major transportation center, with great opportunities on newly reclaimed land for transit-oriented development. What an opportunity for Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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