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I-84 In Hartford Needs Creativity, But Not Big Dig Kind

Rick Green

November 20, 2009

Like the rest of you, I'm an expert on I-84 in Hartford.

I drive on top of it, beneath it and around it. I've contemplated my existence while locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I monitor it closely from my office cubicle.

Most of the time, I curse this elevated mass transit disaster. And, like a lot of you, I thought there is nothing that can be done.

So when I heard about folks who want to tear it down and bury the elevated portion of I-84 through Hartford, I laughed out loud.

What we don't need is a Big Dig boondoggle. I said as much in my CTConfidential blog the other day, where I pointed out there are far larger priorities facing Hartford, like children and adults who can't read. They can't even install bike racks downtown without a yearslong debate.

This hideous, three-quarter mile stretch of highway is just an ugly downside of living here, like probate court, I believed. I know they tore highways down in San Francisco and Portland, but this is Connecticut, where dumb ideas are enshrined and honored.

Then I opened my eyes and considered the opportunity.

This old highway is falling apart. Just check out that creepy patchwork of $20 million in repairs they are doing right now. It is going to have to be rebuilt or replaced within a few decades.

Hartford and the region can think about what could be or accept what has always been done.

"Maybe the thing to do is rebuild it as it is," former city council member Bob Painter told me over coffee at La Paloma Sabanera as we gazed out at the early Thursday morning congestion on what's known as the " Aetna Viaduct."

"But why not think about what overall is the best thing to do?" asked Painter, who leads a committee studying I-84 options. The highway "created a wasteland that everybody's had ideas about but nobody has done anything with.

"We are going to have to do something. Maybe it is a combination, a highway partly decked over, partly a boulevard, partly a tunnel."

With a $360,000 study under way and the blessing of the city, state and regional authorities, Painter's committee which calls itself "the Hub of Hartford" is taking a hard look at what to do with this aging, elevated white elephant. They've hired a consultant and they are holding public meetings and eventually will present options to the state Department of Transportation.

"We are doing an initial screening of alternatives with the intention of coming out with a set of alternatives that we feel the DOT should be looking at," said Tom Maziarz, director of transportation at the Capitol Region Council of Governments, which is assisting the Hub group.

"You've got a 50-year-old piece of infrastructure that in the near term is going to have to be fully reconstructed."

The viaduct debate comes at a propitious moment. Any redesigned elevated highway must be linked to the proposed "busway" to New Britain. The same is true for the expanded commuter and high-speed rail line between Springfield and New Haven that may win federal funding.

The options for I-84 range from just rebuilding the elevated highway to creating a city street-level boulevard with separate commuter lanes to a full-bore underground highway. Another idea would be to divert westbound traffic down to I-691.

"You've got to be practical. Can we sell the state on this plan?" Mayor Eddie Perez asked. "If we can't bury it, what can we do short of burying it?"

A Big Dig project would certainly be a mistake. That's where the other ideas come in.

"You could reclaim huge amounts of real estate right in the center of the city. You wouldn't have this huge gash in the center of the city," said Toni Gold, a member of the viaduct planning group. "For all I know it might be a fairly simple solution: Lower the eastbound lane to the level of the westbound lane.

"Most people just take it for granted that we have to live with it and you can't do anything about. It's falling apart. Either you rebuild it or you do something creative."

She's right about this. We've all spent a lot of time stranded on I-84 in Hartford. It's time to do something creative.

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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