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Scrapping The Viaduct: Some Answers

Tom Condon

November 07, 2010

My column two weeks ago on the conceptual plan to bring the I-84 viaduct down to grade in the center of Hartford generated a remarkable number of hits and responses, pro and con, and a number of questions.

A quick summary: The viaduct is the three-quarter-mile elevated section of I-84 on the western edge of downtown Hartford. The viaduct was built in 1965 with a 40-year life expectancy. State Department of Transportation officials said in 2006 they were going to repair it for $100 million. But a citizens group urged the department to look at other options. This led to the study released last month, which evaluated a new viaduct, a tunnel and bringing the highway to grade, the option most favored by the participants.

Here are some of the questions you raised:

Why bother? Isn't the highway fine the way it is?

Focus on the part about the highway being at the end of its useful life. It's undergoing safety repairs, but something needs to be done long-term. The surface road is the least expensive option.

Won't the highway still divide the city?

There will still be a highway there, but it will be much less of a wall/no-man's-land than in the current configuration. The elevated highway and its elaborate ramp system take up a wide swath of the city. In the new plan it will be narrower, and parts of it will be slightly below ground, as now envisioned. This will allow several overpasses and air rights construction think of the Hartford Public Library built over the Whitehead Highway. The city won't feel as divided.

If the plan moves the railroad tracks to the north, what happens to Union Station?

This, as a committee member said to me, is an opportunity for creativity. The present station could become primarily the bus station. There could be a new station north of Union Station. That could be part of a parking garage/resident/commercial structure.

What happens to the I-84 and I-91 intersection, where there are often backups?

Nothing. This plan just involves the viaduct, which ends before it gets to the I-91 ramp. If and when the project is completed, officials might look at more changes, such as more platforming over I-84.

Does this mean the Hartford-to-New Britain busway is kaput?

Not at all. The DOT thinks the busway can be worked into this redesign with relative ease. Also, construction will mean delays. The busway and, many hope, commuter rail, can help minimize delays, as will other steps such as rerouting some interstate travel. If some of that traffic can use the I-684- and -91 circumvention, the poor man's beltway, that will help.

What is the next step?

It goes to the Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission and the city council this month, then will go to the Capitol Region Council of Governments and the DOT. We're obviously looking at a multi-year project. But the city, state, region and Amtrak all have reasons to like it, so stay tuned.

Where can I find the study? Here, and by all means read it: http://www.courant.com/viaductreport. It's almost staggering to think that 50 years ago, someone thought it was a good idea to demolish the glorious Hartford Public High School campus and hundreds of grand homes and fine commercial buildings for a highway through the heart of the city, and then widen pleasant city streets to make them feeder roads for the highway and tear down more historic buildings for parking lots.

This happened because the highway gang was in charge, and its mission was to move cars. Little if any thought was given to the effect of the highway on the city. This time, so far, thought is being given to the area around the highway. But it's important that as many people as possible review the plans and comment on them, lest we miss something, and fall into the same mistakes again.

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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