Just when we all thought the grand idea of burying I-84 in Hartford had been scuttled by the penny-pinching DOT, along comes U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, with an ambitious plan to build an even bigger tunnel that buries both interstates and extends into East Hartford, all with federal dollars.
This project, if it ever happened, would utterly transform the capital city, undo the sins of highway planners past, and be a template for how to manage transportation in the 21st century.
Here are some details: the state had considered a tunnel in downtown Hartford to replace the aging, unsightly system of bridges that exists now, but eventually dismissed the idea because it would cost $12 billion. They settled on a much less expensive plan to lower the highway and install decking over it in some places instead, which is like doing a tunnel on the cheap.
And then Rep. Larson unveiled his own plan, which would put I-84 into a tunnel running from Flatbush Avenue in the west to Roberts Street in East Hartford. Another tunnel would be dug along the river for I-91, allowing the city to reconnect to the waterfront. Drivers entering the tunnel would be charged a toll.
I have a million questions. How possible is this, from an engineering standpoint? I have no idea what sorts of problems would arise from digging under the city, and under the river. A lot of the land that would be tunneled through in East Hartford is marsh. I also wonder about that massive interchange with Route 2 in East Hartford that takes up so much space — what happens to that? What role will mass transit play in these plans? How much will the tolls be? How the heck am I going to get to work while this is all happening?
But these are details. There are two big questions that really need answers. First and foremost — where does the money come from? Uncle Sam’s got deep pockets, sure, but the federal government’s not exactly a magic ATM.
Another question is whether a hostile and lazy Congress would ever approve a plan like this for deep-blue Connecticut, sponsored by a congressman who was once the high-profile chair of the Democratic caucus in the House.
That answer is murky, and may depend on what happens in November. The chances of Democrats retaking the House are pretty slim, but even when Congress is controlled by the other party, these big transportation bills can sometimes get through if they have enough of what everyone wants in them.
Better, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., is interested in the project. Shuster is the chair of the House Transportation Committee, and is one of the most powerful men in Congress that you’ve never heard of. Shuster’s father is former U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster, who was the very influential chair of the same committee in the 1990s. Basically, if you want a transportation project done in this country, having a guy named Shuster be interested in it is a great first step. Bill Shuster has been to Hartford several times, most recently to hear about the tunnel project.
So there’s some hope, and that’s good news for Connecticut. The highways strangling our cities have been a huge problem for decades. A city that is free of them would be an incredible achievement, and positively impact the entire region in ways we can’t even begin to guess at now.
Imagine a re-connected street grid. Imagine a city that is reconnected to the river. Imagine a system of tolls that would encourage commuters to switch to mass transit. “Without vision, there is no victory,” Larson told the Courant, and he’s right. We don’t react well to big thinking around here. We get suspicious of it, because it’s failed us so many times before. But Larson’s plan is a breath of fresh air. It’s what we need.
It’s very interesting that Larson has proposed this project, and that the scope of it is so much larger than anything we’ve dared consider before. This would, if it ever gets done, be his legacy project. Larson is 68, and he’s not going to rise higher in the ranks of the House. He won’t be minority leader or speaker. But this is something he could leave to his district that would change it forever. It’s a plan other cities all around the state could emulate as we improve transportation for the generations to come.
Rep. Larson’s tunnel plan is brilliant and necessary. Let’s all get behind him, and push Congress to fund it.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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