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Hartford’s Big Dig

eye on the news

Hartford’s Big Dig

A new proposal could begin to undo the damage done to Connecticut’s capital city by its intersecting highways. October 11, 2016
Infrastructure and energy

Connecticut’s cities have many problems—high rates of crime and poverty, anemic economic growth, and failing education systems. In theory at least, these problems can be solved through policy changes. But what do you do about an urban problem that mere tinkering can’t fix?

Every large city in Connecticut has at least one arterial highway slashing through its heart. Some have multiple elevated highways meeting in massive steel-and-concrete interchanges. The drive along I-95 from New York to Boston affords commanding views of Stamford, Bridgeport, and New Haven. Spend a little time on the surface streets of these cities, however, and the civic devastation wrought by their highways is hard to miss.

In Connecticut as in the rest of the country, massive interstate construction projects followed President Dwight Eisenhower’s signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Cities like Hartford were then suffering massive traffic congestion problems, as rising postwar incomes spurred a boom in individual car ownership. In 1949, several major insurance companies asked the engineering firm Andrews and Clark to compile an “Arterial Plan for Hartford” under the direction of New Haven native Robert Moses. “Doctors, we are told, bury their mistakes, planners by the same token embalm theirs, and engineers inflict them on their children’s children,” wrote Moses in a cover letter. It was an oddly prophetic warning from a man blamed by many for ruining New York City with his car-dependent infrastructure projects.    

In Hartford, the I-84 corridor runs east-west through the heart of the state capital, connecting with the north-south I-91 in a tangled knot of ramp systems, bridges, and viaducts. The interchange is an engineering marvel but a civic disaster, cutting off Hartford’s downtown from the Connecticut River. Once known as the “front door of the city,” the river enabled a post-Civil War commercial boom that helped Hartford become the richest city in America during the nineteenth century. Now, according to an employee of Riverfront Recapture, a local nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the city’s waterway, many city residents “are not even aware there’s a river on the other side of the highway.”

More than 175,000 vehicles travel through Hartford on I-84’s six lanes every day, making it the most heavily traveled stretch of highway in the state. “I-84 carved a swath out of the city’s downtown, creating a physical—as well as ethnic, racial, and economic—divide,” observes Richard Malley of the Connecticut Historical Society. “The road bisected or eliminated entire neighborhoods.” Hartford, which had enjoyed 170 years of uninterrupted population growth, began losing residents in the 1960s when the newly constructed highways increased the appeal of suburban commuting.     

Originally designed to last 50 years, many of Connecticut’s highways are approaching the end of their planned lifespans. The state Department of Transportation projects that keeping the I-84 viaduct from falling down will cost $3 billion between now and 2045. Instead of repairing it, some want to hide it, maybe even bury it.

Connecticut transportation department engineer Rich Armstrong says that a proposal now being considered would essentially “hide the highway,” by decking over a two-mile stretch of I-84 where it passes through the heart of Hartford. “We’re focusing our attention on how we can help reduce the visual impacts of the freeway [and] the noise impacts,” Armstrong said during a September public forum. “[We want to] really try to better integrate this freeway into the community, into the urban environment.”

The I-84 Hartford Project is a partnership between the Federal Highway Administration, the Connecticut DOT, and local municipal governments. Takings its inspiration from Boston’s Big Dig and similar highway “re-visioning” schemes in San Francisco and Cleveland, the project is currently in an environmental-review phase. Construction is tentatively slated to begin in 2020 and could be completed by 2027.

Current estimates put the cost of the I-84 Hartford Project in the vicinity of $5 billion. But it’s not the only “big dig” option under consideration. Democratic congressman John Larson estimates that burying both I-84 and I-91 as they pass through Hartford would cost $10 billion. That’s a lot of money in a state that’s functionally broke—and the budgets for such projects would surely grow massively as the years go by—but Connecticut’s failing cities are in desperate need of fresh thinking. Better to spend now on fixing the planning mistakes of the last century than to spend the first half of this one paying to maintain them.

Photo by MIHAI ANDRITOIU/iStock

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