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A better Hartford means better city planning

Associate Commentary Editor

Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 22:01

What’s the worst thing about living in or near Hartford? Many people would tell you it’s I-84, the interstate highway that runs straight through downtown Hartford. The highway splits the city in half, causes traffic and congestion and gives thousands of commuters headaches daily.

The viaduct, which is the particularly chaotic elevated section of highway between Flatbush Avenue and the I-91 interchange, needs to be totally rebuilt. It was built in 1965 and was intended to last only 50 years. Now the viaduct is the busiest stretch of highway in Connecticut and is in need of an update. Fortunately, the state is considering alternative plans to change the route of the highway and hopefully undo some of the damage it’s done to Hartford.

The viaduct itself needs to go for structural reasons, but more importantly its design and placement has been detrimental to Hartford. The I-84 viaduct is a perfect example of everything that went wrong with Interstate Highway Project of the 50s and 60s.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was built to connect the country, bring some uniformity to existing roads and provide a comprehensive network of ground transportation for the military in case of an invasion or some other emergency. That original network that was begun in the 50s has been expanded since then, and it’s had a profound impact on America over the last half century. Today, 90 percent of the country lives within five miles of a nationally registered highway.

What we learned from this 50-year project with highways is that they’re one of the least efficient systems of mass transportation. They take up loads of space and make the land around them noisy, polluted and undesirable. On top of that, they’re more dangerous than other methods of transportation. They’re often more expensive to build and maintain and they do a poor job of accommodating changes in traffic flow.

The creation of interstates spurred commerce and connected the country, but it also ushered in a new era of sprawl and wreaked havoc on cities. Interstates were built right through downtown areas, destroying and dividing neighborhoods. Property values dropped, cities became fragmented and many who could afford it moved away, leading to the mass decline of inner cities in the US. Hartford is one of the many cities that suffered this fate. It is a perfect example of why many urban planners, civil engineers and politicians are beginning to consider the advantages of other forms of mass transportation.

The viaduct cuts off the North End and Asylum Hill from the rest of the city. Neighborhoods are segmented and people are less inclined to move throughout the city, which is bad from both business and community viewpoints.

The viaduct was originally intended to carry less than one third of its current daily traffic of 175,000 vehicles. The confusing patchwork of bridges, ramps and exits that have been added over the years, coupled with heavy congestion, causes a high frequency of accidents. The state DOT has spent nearly $100 million on the viaduct since 2002, but none of that money has been used to make the structure better suited to its current traffic - it’s simply maintenance.

The viaduct passes by Bushnell Park, Union Station and the Capitol building through what could be some of the most desirable land in Hartford. Even though the viaduct is elevated, the land underneath it is virtually worthless because of the noise and appearance. It’s used mostly for parking lots.  
Hartford recognized that something could be done about all of this. A coalition of Hartford citizens and the Capital Region Council of Governments came up with a plan to get rid of the viaduct and shuffle around the railroad lines instead of replacing the structure in kind. The plan would reconnect some of the city’s neighborhoods and roads, relieve congestion and free up 20 acres of developable land in the heart of the city. Many other cities have successfully removed highways that were once built through downtown areas, including San Francisco, Seattle, Milwaukee, Boston and Portland.

The project looks like it’s going to take between eight and ten years to design and another five to seven to build. It will probably cost much more than replacing the viaduct and during the time that it’s being built, I-84 will be even worse than it is now. It may seem like an impossibly large and somewhat ridiculous project, but the plan is the most practical and cost effective move in the long run. The property taxes from the expansion of the downtown area will help finance the construction. The project will incorporate railroads, bus lines and a more practical highway. It will make Hartford a better place for everyone who lives or works there.  

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