Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
U.S. Rep. John B. Larson (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — U.S. Rep. John B. Larson doesn’t have much time to convince Governor-elect Ned Lamont and his yet-to-be-named Transportation Commissioner that tunneling through Hartford is the best path forward.

With a divided Congress in Washington where Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate, infrastructure spending is one of the only areas where the two parties might be able to agree. And Larson is situated as a member of the Ways and Means Committee to make sure Connecticut gets the funding for his big idea.

It’s an idea that comes with a big price tag, but Larson believes it would be political malpractice not to ask for what the region needs when Connecticut gets back less money than it gives to the federal government.

Larson told about two dozen residents in the north end Tuesday that his proposal amounts to a sketch on the back of a napkin, but it’s “a concept worthy of pursuit because of the economic development it provides and the ease of transportation.”

“The question is are we going to make the same mistake we made 50 years ago?” Larson said. “Or are we going to focus on the kind of economic change and vitality that will save the levees, recapture the riverfront, and reunite north Hartford, and create economic development?”

He said tunneling through Hartford would allow traffic that doesn’t plan on stopping in Hartford to flow from Roberts Street in East Hartford to Flatbush Avenue in West Hartford on I-84 and from the North Meadows to the South Meadows on I-91.

One of the plans proposed by the Connecticut Department of Transportation under outgoing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy calls for rerouting I-84 through north Hartford and East Hartford. That new route is through a big portion of Hartford and East Hartford’s tax base. The route essentially cuts through the car dealerships in both cities.

State Rep. Joshua Hall, D-Hartford, said that’s concerning.

State Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, asked what Larson needs to do in order to secure the funding for the tunnel.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
U.S. Rep. John B. Larson (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

First, Congress needs to pass an infrastructure bill and fund it.

McCrory said he’s concerned about Larson putting forward the tunnel proposal and the governor putting forward a different, competing proposal.

Larson said there’s nothing to squabble over until there’s an infrastructure bill.

However, Larson said he believes Lamont will be supportive of the tunnel idea. Lamont has not directly addressed the issue, but in accepting Larson’s endorsement during the Democratic primary in July, he agreed that pulling highways out of downtown and the Connecticut Riverfront is a good idea, saying it’s time to stop “bifurcating our cities.”

McCrory asked Larson what he can do to help move the tunnel idea forward.

Larson said he believes Lamont, and whoever he appoints as Transportation Commissioner, will support the tunnel concept.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation has been planning for the replacement of the elevated portion of I-84 for years, but Larson said they need to think bigger.

He said tunneling through Hartford would not disrupt as much of the flow of traffic through the city as shutting down I-84 for two to five years as they tear down the viaduct, which is the elevated portion of the highway near Aetna. Larson said people don’t think about that when they are considering the various proposals.

Larson said tunneling is a “turn-key operation,” which would allow business to continue as a tunnel boring machine cuts a path.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation is focused on the 2.5 miles of highway that needs to be rebuilt or torn down because it is beyond its 50-year lifespan. Transportation Department engineers believe it would be best to lower the interstate, but a final decision isn’t expected until 2020.

The cost of lowering I-84 has been estimated at about $2 billion.

But Larson said there’s other considerations, too.

He said focusing solely on the so-called Aetna viaduct doesn’t help find federal money to replace the levees and reconnect the city with the Connecticut River. Larson said Connecticut is too far down on a list for levee replacement, but including it as part of an infrastructure package makes sense.

“Governor-elect Lamont is grateful to Congressman Larson for his leadership, applauds his big thinking, and supports Larson’s efforts to bring federal infrastructure dollars back to Connecticut,” Lacey Rose, Lamont’s communications director, said. “While the Congressman works to secure federal funding, Lamont will be focused on making critical changes to alleviate traffic, improve our roads and rails, and attract new businesses throughout Connecticut.”

Lamont indicated in one of his last debates that he would replace Transportation Commissioner James Redeker.