Op-Ed | Remaking Hartford Highways Should be Transportation Priority
Another week has come and gone, so naturally there’s been yet another of the increasingly quixotic attempts to stop the Hartford-New Britain Busway. This time a state environmental protection hearing was the venue for opponents to dredge up the same anti-busway arguments they’ve been throwing around for years: ridership projections are nonsense, rail is better, it costs too much. It’s all been said, and it hasn’t made a difference. At this point the only tactic with any chance of slowing down the busway is if Sen. Joe Markley actually lies down in front of the buses the first day of operation.
The busway is going to happen. When it does, it’ll be the first real major adjustment to how transportation works in the region since I-91 was reconstructed to allow for access to the river in downtown Hartford in the late 1990s, and the first piece of major new non-highway infrastructure to be added in my lifetime. But the busway, as ground-breaking as it is, merely serves as the opening act for a much more potentially transformational project on the horizon: the replacement of the aging Aetna Viaduct (I-84) in downtown Hartford.
Gov. Malloy has repeatedly connected the dots between the busway and the viaduct, suggesting that even if the busway fails to attract riders that it could serve as a replacement artery into Hartford when the viaduct comes down for repair. And make no mistake, the viaduct is going to be fixed one way or the other; it’s old, in bad shape, and needs constant fixing. The original plan by DOT was to simply repair and resurface the existing viaduct in order to extend its life by another two decades, but thankfully local outcry forced them to consider a wide range of alternatives.
I-84 through downtown Hartford is an unholy mess. In the language of urban designers, the viaduct, which is an engineer’s way of saying “elevated highway,” creates a barrier between downtown and neighborhoods like Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill. What this means in practice is that if you want to walk into downtown from the west you’ll have to cross underneath a hulking, creepy, concrete mammoth, usually on unappealing, badly-repaired and deserted sidewalks with plenty of dead land on either side. The result is what’s called a “doughnut city” with an isolated downtown disconnected from its neighborhoods, and it means that the various parts of the city don’t work together. The viaduct as it is right now is one of the many things standing in the way of creating a more vibrant and attractive Hartford, and it should be replaced with something more positive.
Happily, there are some compelling alternatives in the works. The city, state and federal governments are looking at several options, outlined in this forward-looking 2011 report. The two most intriguing options involve putting some segments of I-84 below ground and creating new urban streets and developments where now there is only concrete, steel and the steady rush of traffic.
The replacement of the viaduct can happen, and it should. Nationally, there’s a growing movement to tear down looming elevated highways in favor of more urban-friendly designs. New Haven, which is way ahead of Hartford in undoing the transportation mistakes of the past, is getting rid of the Oak Street Connector: expect to see it gone by the end of the decade. San Fransisco replaced the Embarcadero Freeway, reconnecting the city with a neglected piece of its waterfront. Boston’s Big Dig, known largely for cost overruns, rid that city of the eyesore that was elevated I-93 through downtown and created beautiful new urban spaces. There’s no reason it can’t happen here as well.
Opponents of the busway must reconcile themselves to the fact that their battle is lost. A light rail line is not coming, and it would take years at this point just to start the planning process for such a thing. There isn’t unlimited time; any future plans for the redesign of I-84 in Hartford will be connected to the busway. The new roadway will either serve as a corridor for traffic into the city or as a mass transit alternative during construction, and as such needs to be in place and functioning well before any I-84 plans are finalized.
The busway isn’t a mistake, but the Aetna Viaduct absolutely was. A better use for busway opponents’ knowledge about and passion for transportation might be a push for a Hartford where the highways make sense.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.