Susan Bigelow photo


DOT engineers are basically giving up on the much-praised possibility of burying I-84 in downtown Hartford in a tunnel or partial tunnel, citing a potential price tag in the billions. They shouldn’t. The cost may be high, but the payoff for fixing one of the worst mistakes mid-century America made could be worth every cent.

Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, transportation planners thought it would be a great idea to run massive superhighways right through the middle of major cities. The idea was to get rid of “undesirable” neighborhoods and draw traffic downtown to what was then the heart of American commerce.

It backfired spectacularly.

Instead of drawing traffic downtown, the highways made it easy for people to either leave for the suburbs or bypass cities altogether. The neighborhoods that were destroyed turned out to be irreplaceable parts of the city’s fabric. And the highways themselves often functioned like noisy, polluting, unsightly walls, separating different parts of the city from one another.

Hartford had it especially bad. I-91 cut the city off from the river and flattened the vibrant Front Street neighborhood. I-84 neatly divided the city in two, and walled off the north end from downtown. The Whitehead Highway covered over the flood-prone Park River, but turned downtown into a peninsula almost completely surrounded by seas of asphalt. Try to get out of downtown without crossing over or under a highway. You’ll see what I mean.

Some progress has been made since the highways arrived. Parts of I-84 downtown were covered with a deck. A beautiful pedestrian crossing and amphitheater were built by Riverfront Recapture to reconnect the city to the river. Parts of I-91 were lowered as well.

But the worst problems remain, in the form of the massive system of bridges carrying I-84 through downtown west of High Street all the way past the massive Aetna complex to Park Street. It’s an eyesore and it’s a mess, but worse, it’s falling apart. That’s why the DOT is talking about replacing it. To their immense credit, they have been seeking plenty of input from residents, businesses, and other stakeholders in the city about which of their ideas would work best.

The proposal that’s generated the most buzz and support is an idea for burying the elevated part of the highway entirely. I’m in no way surprised that people jumped at this plan. Imagine how different Hartford would be if the constant noise, rush, and barrier of I-84 were simply . . . gone?

Apparently DOT wasn’t expecting this much enthusiasm for the tunnel idea, because now they’ve come back with sobering news: it won’t be possible unless taxpayers pony up some serious dough. It’ll cost about $12 billion, engineers say, which in their minds is reason enough to scuttle the plan and move on to something less popular, less effective, and cheaper.

Not so fast.

Look, I understand where DOT is coming from. There’s no money for anything right now, it seems, and given how badly the public reacted to CTFastrak, which cost a fraction of the money, they’re probably thinking the reception would be a blizzard of hate and lawsuits. They also are almost certainly thinking of what happened when Boston buried its own elevated highways, namely, the nightmare of cost overruns and failure that was the Big Dig. Nobody wants to be the home of the next Big Dig.

But . . . take a look at what the Big Dig accomplished. Traffic is still heavy, but it’s underground. Above ground, the city is cleaner, brighter, and far more integrated. If you go to Boston, be sure to take a look at the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, an interlinked series of parks that now occupies the old interstate right of way.

Imagine parklands, homes, restaurants, and offices in Hartford where the I-84 viaduct stands now.

And the awful mistakes that happened during Boston’s mammoth construction project have provided lessons on what Connecticut should avoid. The DOT managed to build CTFastrak on time and under budget, after all, so why not something like this?

Ultimately it comes down to cost, and that’s where people and legislators will balk the most. But ask yourself this: how much is it worth to us to restore the heart that was torn out of our state’s capital 60 years ago? How much is a better city worth in both real economic terms and in fuzzier things, like quality of life, walkability, and attractiveness as a place to live?

Is Hartford worth $12 billion? I think so. Let’s bury the highway and reconnect the city.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.