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Regional Group Calls For Lowering I-84 To Street Level

Don Stacom

October 27, 2010

Moving I-84 to surface level as it passes through Hartford appears to be the best alternative to explore in more detailed engineering studies as the state considers what to do with the aging viaduct that carries the highway through the city.

That's the general conclusion of a report released to the public Wednesday evaluating various options for improving the 3/4-mile-long, elevated portion of I-84 that begins at Sisson Avenue and runs to about Union Station.

Although lowering the highway to street level makes more sense than rebuilding the viaduct, it will require an expensive, orchestrated move of downtown streets, highway exits and the Amtrak railway line, planners said.

As the viaduct approaches obsolescence, the Capitol Region Council of Governments is trying to build public support for a dramatic redesign.

Planners said their idea would eliminate a towering obstruction, change Hartford's skyline, allow divided neighborhoods to be reunited and free about 15 acres of dead space for commercial development.

It's a job that would require hundreds of millions of dollars, relocation of massive utility systems, years of construction, and cooperation from merchants, taxpayers and major employers such as Aetna and The Hartford.

But unlike revolutionary notions that surface and then vanish, this plan has a serious chance of happening, planners said, because the viaduct is simply wearing out.

Rather than replace what's there, the state should use the opportunity to improve Hartford, said Lyle Wray, executive director of the regional agency.

"When you can add 15 to 20 developable acres, straighten the geometry and make this a better place to live that's better," Wray said.

The viaduct has been blamed for many of the ills plaguing Hartford because it divided the North End from the rest of the city and isolated about 10,000 workers at Aetna and The Hartford from restaurants, shops, museums, condos and apartments downtown. The result, they said, is that a large percentage of the city's best-paid workers hardly see it as they commute from the suburbs.

Completed in the mid-'60s as part of the interstate highway system, the elevated highway was designed to last for 40 to 50 years. State transportation department crews have stepped up the pace of repairs in recent years and assure that it's structurally solid. Still, the DOT concedes that patches are no long-term solution; officials figure that construction is 5 to 20 years away, and acknowledge that maintenance and monitoring costs will rise in that time.

Planners and DOT officials have no formal replacement cost, but privately say that $1 billion is probably in the right range. The regional council of governments estimates that a ground-level highway wouldn't cost much more than that to build, and would dramatically reduce maintenance costs for the next generation.

Viaduct replacement expenses are hitting other states at the same time, Wray said.

"We have very heavy use in New England, we have crummy weather, we have trucks that are pounding our highways, and we have a lot of older infrastructure," Wray said. "And these things were designed with 50-year lifespans. So you have a lot of infrastructure that has to get replaced all at once."

Decades of relentless traffic, coupled with seasons of freezing, thawing and road salt have gradually worn down the viaducts that were fashionable when President Dwight Eisenhower's administration initiated the interstate highway system in the 1950s. Often, cities are now eager to do away with them because of the heavy cost to maintain elevated pavement and networks of steel supports.

The regional council of governments has developed preliminary plans that it says would do that without affecting the 175,000 drivers who use I-84 into, out of or through Hartford each day. A Big Dig-style tunnel would be tremendously costly, and an urban boulevard wouldn't sufficiently accommodate traffic, planners said. But moving the Amtrak line out from under the viaduct would allow the state to rebuild I-84 at ground level, maintaining all current lanes of traffic but doing away with space-wasting elevated ramps and approaches, they said.

U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said this week that he's so impressed with the idea that he hopes it eventually can be used with the elevated section of I-91, too.

"We want livable, sustainable communities, we want intermodal transportation with rail and bus, bikes and walking paths. Let's take down these monstrosities," Larson said. "Part of the original idea for Riverfront Recapture was to drop the highway and create a connection to the waterfront. We know none of this will happen tomorrow. But if you don't start thinking now, you won't have a vision for it."

CRCOG has posted its preliminary report at http://www.crcog.org/publications/TransportationDocs/Viaduct/20101001DraftReport.pdf

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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