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HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: I-84 Viaduct Removal Plan In Hartford, CT | Congress for the New Urbanism

HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: I-84 Viaduct Removal Plan In Hartford, CT

This post is a part of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative.

The following responses were coordinated by Jennifer Carrier, Director of Transportation Planning at Capital Region Council of Governments, which undertook an extensive study to determine the potential for reworking the Aetna Viaduct along Interstate 84 in Hartford, CT. For additional background on the groups removals efforts, please vist i84hartford.com.

There is an elevated portion of Interstate 84 which ascends at Sisson Avenue in Hartford, CT taking off from there through the city's downtown. This portion, deemed the Aetna Viaduct, is a three-quarters of a mile concrete separation that intimidates pedestrians and severely restricts mobility to anyone not behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Around 1965, with the construction of the Aetna Viaduct, Hartford also lost reams of historic architecture and easy, walkable connections between adjacent neighborhoods and public spaces (e.g. Asylum Hill and Frog Hill, to name a few). Downtown growth was inhibited, creating a “doughnut city.”

Photo courtesy of i84Hartford.comPhoto courtesy of i84hartford.com

So in 2005 when the viaduct reached the end of its lifespan, the City of Hartford was left at a turning point on how to address the structure, which carries upwards of  175,000 vehicles per day. The City could repair any damage to the structure to increase its lifespan another 20 years, or pursue new alternatives that would heal and reconnect downtown with the rest of Hartford. The Connecticut Department of Transportation originally proposed to invest $100 million into resurfacing the aging structure.

Armed with growing international evidence of cities successfully removing urban highways, local advocates and stakeholders petitioned the City of Hartford and ConnDOT to change course.

After securing federal funding, the City hired Goody-Clancy to perform an alternatives study of the viaduct. Goody-Clancy published results in October 2010 that noted that while the viaduct is need of immediate repairs, the roadway will also need to be fully reconstructed or replaced within 10-15 years. Active citizens from Asylum Hill and other affected neighborhoods, with the support from Mayor Eddie Perez and the Connecticut Department of Transportation, joined together to form the Hub of Hartford Committee to represent and enforce the removal of the Aetna Viaduct. The Capitol Region of Council Governments is working closely with the Hub of Hartford and is representing the initial phase of this project on behalf of the City of Hartford.

Q: Things have been rather quiet lately in regards to I-84 in Hartford, Where is the I-84 Hartford Project now? When do expect an alternative to be chosen?

A: The Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) has recently geared up to undertake comprehensive engineering and environmental work for the I-84 project. The goal is to closely examine options for reconstructing the highway viaduct and to identify a long-term solution embraced by the community and the region, ensuring federal and state regulations are followed. The analysis, design and construction are a major undertaking that will take several years to complete. Project phasing includes:

Phase I: Data Gathering
Phase II: Development of Alternatives
Phase III: Environmental Documentation
Phase IV: Design
Phase V: Construction

Q: How did the conversation for I-84 change when re-aligning the train tracks (Amtrak line, tracks moved north of highway) became a viable option? What new challenges and new opportunities does this "ah-ha" moment create for Hartford?

A: A significant conclusion from the I-84 Viaduct Study was the vision to rebuild I-84 combining it with a relocation of the existing rail line, opening up opportunities to depress the existing structure and re-knit the urban fabric. Built in 1965, the ¾ mile stretch of elevated highway through Hartford divides the City, separating neighborhoods from each other and downtown. Reconstructing the Viaduct offers the opportunity to rethink its form and reconnect the community. However, maintaining the rail line placement where it stands today requires a highway viaduct at the rail crossing points, making it very difficult to avoid rebuilding the physical barrier that currently exists. Shifting the rail line truly was an “ah-ha” moment that seems to be a win on a variety of fronts with the ability to:

  • Depress and deck over a section of I-84, providing a seamless connection and visual corridor between the downtown core and the surrounding neighborhoods
  • Create 15-20 acres of newly available land for economic development and to expand Bushnell Park
  • Remove the need for a rail viaduct over Asylum St, a potential financial savings
  • Straighten the rail line, aiding in the future development of high speed rail
  • Save in highway maintenance – highway viaducts are expensive to build and maintain. The complete removal of a highway viaduct may result in significant savings over the next several decades

Along with these benefits comes more moving parts. The I-84 Viaduct project is challenging due to its location in a dense, urban core surrounded by buildings, established neighborhoods, Bushnell Park, the Park River Conduit, Union Station and the rail line. Shifting the rail line is a major undertaking that will require extensive coordination and an expansion of Union Station.

Q: How does the City and CTDOT's plan for I-84 fit into the Hartford Planning & Zoning Commission’s One City, One Plan initiative? Does the existence of an urban freeway hinder certain initiatives within this plan (e.g. the Liveable and Sustainable Neighborhood Plan)?

A: One City, One Plan recognizes that I-84 has a strong influence not only on the transportation/mobility within the city and the region, but also on the neighborhood connectedness both physically and socially. There are several themes from One City One Plan that could relate to this project.

One of the goals of the City’s plan for conservation and development is to promote livable and sustainable neighborhoods that are well connected and “sustainable physically, socially and economically”. The way it was designed, I-84 creates a physical barrier between the downtown and other parts of the city, discourages pedestrian activity and decreases economic vitality.

Furthermore, One City, One Plan envisions neighborhoods where “environmental impacts are minimized, resources are used efficiently and the carrying capacity of the infrastructure is not exceeded”. Rethinking I-84 and providing new ideas and healthier alternatives fits in the vision of the plan for creating vibrant places where interaction between people and places is encouraged.

In addition, the plan seeks to promote alternative modes of transportation to the private vehicle by enhancing mobility through transit, pedestrian and bike system citywide. In its current capacity, Interstate 84 clearly has an impact on an inadequate pedestrian and bicycle connection between the downtown and other neighborhoods, lessening the downtown’s role as the region’s center for commerce, culture and city living. Advancing this role for the downtown through improved pedestrian connections, conditions and levels of services is one of the goals of One City, One Plan.

 

 

Q: What has been the Capital Region Council of Government role in the new study (I084 Hartford Project? And does CRCOG have an official opinion or alternative that they advocate for?

A: CRCOG has been an active stakeholder in the new planning and design initiatives for the advancement of the I-84 reconstruction efforts. CRCOG is a member of both the I-84 Hartford Executive Committee and the Public Advisory Committee, ensuring the regional significance of this study and the opportunities is presents are not overlooked. We have no preferred alternatives at this preliminary stage of planning however support concepts that reconnect the City, improve safety, and enhance mobility for all users.

Q: Can you speak to the difficulty of re-envisioning I-84 corridor (i.e. traffic volumes, rail line, money, backlog of infrastructure projects, mutlple stakeholders, community input/backlash)?

A: Re-envisioning I-84 has been exciting due to its ability to transform the City, but it is also a very complex undertaking. Several stakeholders with varying interests, many physical constraints and considerations, the reliance of 175,000 vehicles per day, and the financial costs are some of the many challenges that we face.

The process that was used in our study helped represent the varying interests and involve the public while staying focused on the key study goals. Having a firm with a solid structural background on the consulting team ensured that the physical surroundings of the Viaduct like existing buildings, the Park River Conduit, and the rail line were considered. As the State’s highest volume roadway, travelers are reliant on I-84 and the study looked at general patterns to understand what opportunities for diversion existed. The cost of rebuilding the Viaduct is significant, but it would cost even more to continue repairing the structure to further extend its lifetime. Replacement of the Viaduct in some form is needed and CTDOT is currently taking a comprehensive look at the engineering and financing options to do so.

Q: Is it true that the boulevard alternative for I-84 isn't likely to be considered further (because of traffic volumes)?

A: The I-84 Viaduct Steering Committee considered a boulevard alternative early in the process and realized that the conversion would not result in the attractive urban boulevard that was initially hoped. For decades the City has grown around the viaduct structure and as a result, an I-84 boulevard in this stretch would result in frontages of backs of buildings and parking garages.  As such, the Committee decided to pursue other options.

CNU would lie to thank Jennifer Carrier for providing us with these above responses and the Capital Region Council of Government for its efforts reconnecting the city of Hartford while enhancing mobility for all modes of transportation. Additionally, the New England Chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism named the I-84 Viaduct Study a recipient of one of the 2011 Urbanism Awards at their Sustainable Urbanism Summit.

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