HARTFORD, CT — U.S. Rep. John B. Larson is not fazed by the estimated cost of burying Interstates 84 and 91 through downtown Hartford.
“I not only think it’s possible, but I think it’s practical,” Larson said Monday.
He said Connecticut should not back down from the challenges of the tunnel project just because of high costs.
He admits the $10 billion to $50 billion price tag is eye-popping, but he expects Democrats to win back the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives this November and says infrastructure spending will be at the top of their agenda.
Next week, Larson is scheduled to meet to go over the project with the outgoing chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the highest ranking Democratic member of that committee.
Larson cautioned that his colleagues, as chairs of their committees, must authorize the project. However, it will still be up to him as a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee to find the funding.
But first he has to find local support for the project.
In an effort to build a coalition, Larson hosted a group of officials from Seattle on Monday who tackled a similar, although much smaller project, in that state. Officials from Seattle described their $3.3 billion project to bury a viaduct traveled by 110,000 vehicles per day.
Hartford’s two-mile viaduct, which the state is currently spending $40 million to reinforce, is traveled by 275,000 vehicles, per day. The state has been discussing with various stakeholders what to do about the elevated portion of the highway that cuts through the city. The I-84, I-91 interchange wasn’t added to the discussion until Larson pitched the idea in 2016.
Larson’s Republican opponent, Jennifer Nye, points out that not everyone agrees with the congressman’s vision.
Nye attended last week’s public advisory committee meeting for the I-84 Project. She said the sixth option, which was Larson’s plan, was considered “unsafe” and “cost-prohibitive.”
On the safety concern, Nye said public safety officials were concerned about how little room there is in the tunnel concept for emergency vehicles to bypass traffic.
There would be no exits from the tunnel. The I-84 tunnel would take vehicles from Flatbush Avenue, under the Connecticut River to Rentschler Field in East hartford. The I-91 tunnel would run from Brainard Airport to the North Meadows.
Nye said if two-thirds of the traffic on the highway is headed to a destination in Hartford, then these tunnels would only be for a third of the existing traffic.
She said in addition to not solving the problems, it’s too expensive. She said something needs to be done, but she supports a proposal that would move the I-84 and I-91 interchange to the Meadows, which is one of the other options the group is exploring.
No decision has been made on what to do with Hartford’s viaduct. A formal decision is expected to be made in Spring 2020.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said Monday that he supports reconnecting the city to the Connecticut River, which is one of the benefits of Larson’s tunneling proposal.
However, Bronin stopped short of endorsing any of the proposals at this early stage.
Bronin said the city and the region have a chance now to “be a lot more thoughtful about the impact of that infrastructure on economic development and quality of life.”
Carl Bard, a retired engineer for the Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan District Commission, said at the moment this tunneling idea “is nothing more than a high-level sketch on a napkin at a local establishment.”
He said they’ve only been talking about this idea for two years and they’re trying to get some momentum out there so that the community can discuss it.
He said travelers who wanted to access downtown Hartford would have to take the “boulevard,” which is a road that has yet to be designed.
Discussions about what to do about the I-84 viaduct started in 2013. Environmental studies for that two-mile section of highway are expected to be completed by the end of 2019.
Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said the “do nothing” alternative to improving the Hartford viaduct is not going to be acceptable to anyone.
“We can’t live with the no-build,” option, Redeker said.
He said the investments are going to be for the next 100 years and they need to be done to those standards. He said the state needs to learn to get more creative in its financing of transportation projects, and it needs to learn how to permit “design-build” projects.