Hartford’s transportation system is at a crossroads. The super-highway system built primarily in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s is deteriorating. Economic and environmental concerns have prompted serious discussion of options such as new busways and improved rail service.
The region’s long-range transportation needs and options were the subject of a meeting Tuesday night of Hartford City Council’s Economic Development Committee, chaired by Councilman Matt Ritter.
Council is looking to coordinate several future transportation projects, including the Hartford-New Britain Busway, the redevelopment of the Springfield to New Haven rail corridor and the renovation and reconstruction of the I-84 Viaduct in Hartford, in the best interest of the city.
Former City Councilman Dr. Robert Painter has been heavily involved in discussing the future of the I-84 viaduct and spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting. Painter said that when the State Department of Transportation (DOT) let it be known that the viaduct will have to be extensively repaired, several community groups and individuals saw such a project as an opportunity to reconfigure I-84 for the betterment of Hartford. Many city residents feel the viaduct, which carries I-84 in a curving route above Hartford’s neighborhoods from Downtown to the West Hartford town line, has divided the city and increased the gap between the city and its suburbs.
Painter, who said the portion of I-84 that runs through Hartford is the most heavily traveled stretch of highway in the state, said a study is currently being conducted on the future of the viaduct and recommendations based on that study should be presented to DOT this spring.
According to Painter, the viaduct can be repaired and left as it is, capped over, placed underground or have a significant part of its traffic diverted to other, existing highways. Painter said he believes the final plan will be a combination of these options.
The I-84 Viaduct Replacement Study is being managed by the Capital Region Council of Governments (CRCOG). CRCOG Executive Director Lyle Wray and CRCOG Director of Transportation Thomas Maziarz also spoke at length at Tuesday’s meeting.
Wray said a key element in the region’s transportation system, the proposed New Britain-Hartford busway, “is really at the 11th hour...we’re hoping to have shovels in the ground next year.” The busway would provide rapid service through Hartford, West Hartford, Newington and New Britain with buses running every three to six minutes at peak times.
When questioned by Ritter as to whether the busway would be self-sustaining, Wray responded, “No transit in the U.S. is self-sustaining.”
However, State Representative David McCluskey, who Ritter called, “one of the foremost experts on transportation in the State of Connecticut,” said he and CRCOG will have to “agree to disagree” over the busway.
McCluskey said the, “vision of a busway from the 1990’s is no longer viable.” Instead, he said, the Greater Hartford region should look into opening a rail connection from Hartford to Waterbury, which currently has rail service to Grand Central Station in New York City.
McCluskey is also a big proponent of the proposed New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter railway. In addition to serving commuters traveling between the towns and cities along the railway, the service could provide a connection to Bradley International Airport, multiple links to Amtrak Intercity service and a direct link to the existing Metro North and Shore Line East Commuter Rail in New Haven.
McCluskey said the project is “moving forward, but not as fast as I’d like.” He also said that Amtrak is looking into the possibility of electrifying the New Haven-Springfield corridor, like the route from New Haven to New York. On an electrified line, trains could run as fast as 100 mph. Trains can currently go as fast as 80 mph but usually go slower due to the geometry of the rail layout and such things as rail crossings at street level (known as grade crossings). Hartford currently has grade crossing at Flower Street, Hamilton Street and Flatbush Avenue.
But Hartford resident Toni Gold, a long-time transportation activist, said she was in favor of additional rail connections but not additional speed. 100 mph trains through Hartford would be “offensive and destructive,” she said, and added, “All this enthusiasm reminds me of the enthusiasm for the superhighways, and how did that turn out?”