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Hartford's Interstate Mistake

Neighborhoods cut off by an elevated stretch of I-84 are pushing hard to reconnect to the city's downtown

By Daniel D'Ambrosio

April 10, 2008

Momentum is building to somehow eliminate the elevated stretch of Interstate 84 between Sisson and Asylum avenues popularly known as the Aetna Viaduct much to that company's chagrin that carries about 185,000 vehicles daily through downtown Hartford, cutting if off from the city's western neighborhoods, and creating a "no man's land" of noise, fumes and general ugliness that contributes to a perception of urban blight.

"The Aetna Viaduct is considered by many in Hartford to be a scar on the Hartford landscape, and it provides no positive net value to the neighborhoods through which it passes," states a white paper submitted to the city a year ago by the Aetna Viaduct Alternatives Committee, a grassroots neighborhood organization.

John O. Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and current president and chief executive officer of the Congress for the New Urbanism, has a more blunt assessment of the freeways that were punched through the hearts of cities across the nation during the interstate building boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

"They're a real turd in the punch bowl," Norquist said last week. "You want to make a city ugly quick, put a freeway through the middle of it."

Norquist will be at the Hartford Public Library Tuesday evening to discuss the future of the Aetna Viaduct. When he was mayor of Milwaukee he oversaw the dismantling of a nearly mile-long elevated freeway spur through that city's central business district that separated it from Lake Michigan and wrecked nearby housing.

Unlike I-84 through Hartford, the spur wasn't a through road, making the situation here more complicated, but not insurmountable, according to Norquist. He cited examples in New York City, where an elevated section of the West Side Highway was turned into a boulevard without ill effects; and Seoul, South Korea, where the removal of an eight-lane freeway built over a river resulted in billions of dollars of new investment in downtown Seoul.

"It's like recovering from a stroke," said Norquist. "After World War II we had 50 years of building big freeways and ramps instead of streets. We're trying to undo the damage."

When the Advocate last wrote about the Aetna Viaduct, in June 2007, the Alternatives Committee had been pushing for the state Department of Transportation to consider long-range alternatives to the structure, in addition to the immediate rehabilitation work that needed to be done. A 2006 study of the 43-year-old viaduct rated sections of it in poor or fair condition, and DOT announced a $100 million plan for renovations of the existing viaduct.

"No politician was paying attention, but us folks who had to live with [the viaduct] every day began to raise hell," said Toni Gold of the West End Civic Association.

In a January 2007 letter to the Hartford Courant, then-DOT Commissioner Ralph J. Carpenter responded to criticism from Gold and the paper regarding the agency's plan to repair the viaduct rather than replace it by acknowledging there was "no argument over the need for increasing capacity and improving access to I-84 in Hartford."

"But whether the choice is ultimately to build a tunnel, a circumferential route, improve the existing alignment, or some other option, the existing viaduct will have to be rehabilitated in order to accommodate the thousands of commuters who use this route every day," wrote Carpenter. "To proceed any other way would be an abdication of the department's responsibility to provide our citizens with the safest, most efficient transportation system with the resources available."

That same month, Gold and others in the Alternatives Committee met with Mayor Eddie Perez to enlist his help in lobbying DOT.

"We said, 'We want you, the city, which has a stake and a legal role [in the viaduct], to insist [DOT] do something about this," remembered Gold. "We didn't say what we wanted. We didn't want to pretend to be highway engineers."

Perez pushed the committee to define exactly what they were hoping to see done, and by April 2007, the committee had produced its white paper, describing the viaduct as a "relic of dated and obsolete transportation planning."

Although much of the paper remained on a high rhetorical plane, calling for an effort to "reweave and strengthen our community by approaching the highway as something that is part of the community rather than something that just runs through it," the authors did get down to calling for "lowering and decking" I-84, and where it couldn't be decked, minimizing it in some other way.

Perez met with DOT as promised, and "worked wonders," according to Gold, opening up a dialogue with Al Martin, a deputy commissioner, and appointing former city councilman Bob Painter as the city's liaison with the Alternatives Committee.

"Al Martin came to our meetings and said 'Everything's on the table, we want to work with you,'" said Gold.

Martin also stressed, as Carpenter had, that the DOT was obligated to deal with the short-term rehabilitation of the viaduct to keep traffic flowing. But at least they were open to discussing the future.

"We have now come to this point where the DOT has agreed that a big report that would look at all possible alternatives should be done," Painter said.

The alternatives for the viaduct such a report could consider would include "burying it, capping it, turning it into a boulevard or shunting traffic [around Hartford] by way of another road," according to Painter.

Last month, Gold and her fellow activists authored a request for proposals for the study, which they're calling, "The Hub of Hartford Alternative: Integrated Land Use and Transportation." The RFP describes the viaduct as the "most dangerous, ugly and economically detrimental section of highway in Connecticut," and the most heavily traveled.

"Using the redesign and de-emphasis of I-84 as the central theme for change, the Hub of Hartford can become a lively and walkable, mixed-use, mixed income urban place, and a regional crossroads where business, government, community and recreation uses integrate seamlessly in a historic context supplemented by compatible new development," the RFP gushes.

Sarah Barr, Perez's communications director, said the mayor is currently in the process of identifying city, state and federal funds that may be available to complete the study of the viaduct.

"We are still looking into how much it will cost, but it could be as much as $200,000 for such a study," Barr wrote in an e-mail.

Painter said Perez would like to have the study done as soon as possible, "well under a year," but that the Council of Regional Governments, which is also involved in the effort, and DOT have told him they expect it to take up to a year to complete the study once funding is found.

While applauding the push for a study, Norquist believes he already knows what it will conclude that Interstate 84 traffic never should have been routed through downtown Hartford in the first place.

"It doesn't do a thing for the city," said Norquist. "It just makes the air stinkier and makes a bunch of noise, reducing property values. If the city ever did get rid of it, people in Hartford would love it. It would be like, 'Why didn't we do this sooner?'"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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