To anyone who has ever suffered through the morning gridlock that is I-95 in Fairfield County, inched their way across the Bulkeley Bridge in the late afternoon, or tried to get through Waterbury at any time of the day or night, this comes as no surprise: Connecticut’s roads are among the most congested in the country.
A recent report by TRIP, a national transportation think tank, ranked Connecticut eighth on the list of most congested urban interstates; we also made the list of the ten states with the most structurally deficient interstate bridges. In short: our roads are choked and our bridges are in bad repair. Fantastic.
Unsurprisingly, this is because Connecticut’s roads are among the busiest; when it comes to daily travel per lane mile we’re third, behind only California and Maryland. Being in a class with the home of the asphalt nightmare of Los Angeles and the state that contains the majority of the dreaded Capital Beltway isn’t really a cause for celebration.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about this as I sit in Hartford traffic every day. There are parts of I-91 that have four and even five lanes—and yet they’re still jammed with cars. The problem has gotten a lot worse since the last time I regularly commuted through Hartford 15 years ago, and I imagine it’s going to keep getting worse unless we can find a way to stop it.
It’s frustrating, but it could absolutely get worse: We could decide that what we need is to widen our urban interstate highways, add more lanes, and even build new stretches of highway. That would be a disaster. In fact, our cities desperately need fewer ribbons of asphalt slicing through them, not more.
At least the state is moving, finally, to replace one of the oldest and worst sections of elevated roadway, the I-84 Viaduct that runs just west of downtown Hartford.
The good news is that the bridges, which are both an eyesore and an intimidating barrier for pedestrians, will be going away for good. Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation has decided that they’d prefer to lower the highway to slightly below-grade instead of building the option people really wanted: a tunnel that would carry the interstate below the city, allowing the street grid to be reconnected above.
There may be some option to put decking over the highway, like what exists over I-84 downtown now, but I feel that we’re missing a vital opportunity to both build a better city and to drastically limit the negative effect of the highway.
However, I do think there’s one thing we can do to help solve our awful traffic problems when we do remake I-84: reduce the number of lanes to two in each direction and add congestion tolls that charge people a fee to travel the roads at peak hours.
This will do a few things. First, it will make a lot of people very angry. Some will threaten to take their cars and move to Arizona or Florida. Fine. But the second thing is that it will force people who travel that corridor regularly to actually consider other options. They’re in luck, too — as of now, the stretch of I-84 between New Britain and Hartford actually has good mass transit for the first time in my lifetime. CTFastrak is busy expanding parking lots at its stations, and is running buses not just on the busway and downtown, but across the river into East Hartford and Manchester as well.
In a few years we’ll have more options. There will be commuter rail on the I-91 corridor, and CTFastrak service east of the river will be making use of priority signals and HOV lanes to make travel times even shorter. I’m looking forward to the day when I can avoid the Hartford traffic and easily take a train and a bus to work, and I hope a lot of people join me in doing so.
But to do that, we have to stop feeding the highway monster. No more expanding highways. No more building new highways through our cities. No more transportation plans that spend disproportionate amounts on roads instead of mass transit.
The interstate highway system is an incredible piece of engineering, and it has done much to bring our country closer together. But in urban areas, at least, it has worn out its welcome. It’s time to plan for a future in which it plays second fiddle to more sustainable forms of transportation.
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.