EAST HARTFORD, CT — U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon said he doesn’t know of any members of Congress aside from U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, who have imagined and proposed large infrastructure projects for their home states.
Larson has proposed a more than $10 billion project to tunnel through Hartford. The plan has not been engineered or endorsed by Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, but has been an idea that the congressman has been pitching for at least three years as discussions about what to do about the elevated portion of Interstate 84 continue.
The discussion 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 this year.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the two worst planning sins of the last century were cutting the city in half with I-84, and severing the city from the riverfront with I-91.
Larson has admitted that his tunnel plan amounts to a sketch on the back of a napkin, but he believes it’s a project that would pay for itself.
“He’s persistent,” DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said of his colleague. On Friday, DeFazio was in the area to defend his Bocce tournament title and got a firsthand look at the viaduct that Larson keeps pitching.
Larson said tunneling through Hartford would allow traffic that doesn’t plan on stopping in the city 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.
In Seattle, Washington, they chose to tunnel because they couldn’t afford to shut down the city while they repaired the highway, according to Larson. Last year, Larson brought officials involved with that project to Hartford for a discussion about the collaboration it required.
Larson’s Hartford tunnel might still be considered visionary, but he’s not giving up.
“The good news is with this governor and a new DOT chairman we’re all working together,” Larson said.
Larson said his tunnel idea should have to overcome the accountability of the citizens and individuals who are saying is there a better, more affordable way.
“Today we haven’t seen it,” Larson said.
As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, Larson’s job will be to find the money to fund the project.
“You have one hell of a persistent advocate and a visionary in your representative in John Larson,” DeFazio said.
However, he said “this is not a Hartford problem, this is not a New England problem, this is a national issue.”
Larson said the state and city can’t fix the interstate on their own, they need a federal partner and the federal partner has been “absent for way too long.”
DeFazio’s proposal to pay for a $2 trillion national infrastructure overhaul is by increasing the federal gas tax, which has not gone up since 1993.
He knows Republicans will oppose increasing taxes, but even indexing the gas and diesel tax will result in an increase of no more than 1.5 cents per gallon. That increase would allow the government to borrow $500 billion now over the next five years and spend that money to build infrastructure projects like Larson’s tunnel.
“It is abysmally stupid that we can’t get past that point,” DeFazio said.
He said for the first time since 2010 the House Ways and Means Committee held a meeting on financing infrastructure.
“I can write the policy, but I need the money,” DeFazio said.
At a recent House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting with truckers, DeFazio said the industry supports an increase in the diesel tax because they don’t want a piecemeal approach of toll increases. Those toll increases are largely the result of the lack of federal funding for projects, which has increasingly left the responsibility and cost of infrastructure up to state and local governments.
Larson said it would be up to the Connecticut DOT to decide whether to toll a Hartford tunnel.
Over the past three years, Larson has been making his tunnel pitch to anyone who will listen. He added that it’s “long overdue” that the federal government steps up to improve these interstate systems that they built.
Bronin said the city needs to be reconnected.
“I support reconnecting the city to the riverfront and I think we should be looking at every idea possible to make that happen.”
It’s unclear where Gov. Ned Lamont stands on Larson’s tunnel idea, but he met with DeFazio Thursday night before leaving for a wedding in California.