A group called Hartford400, which is focused on transforming the capital city in time for its 400th birthday in 2035, released a new plan this week to erase the sins of the midcentury highway-building boom and knit the city back together. I won’t lie, it looks seriously cool. But this is the sort of thing we can’t pay for on our own; we’d need heaps of federal money to do the job, and Washington has been too broken to do anything this big and useful for decades … Right?
Let me take a moment to geek out about this plan. It not only moves the misery that is the interchange between I-84 and I-91 to two separate locations north and south of downtown Hartford, but also it puts both highways underground for significant portions of their path through the city. It would remove the sprawling interchange with Route 2 in East Hartford, turn the I-91 corridor above ground into something called the River Road, build new neighborhoods where I-84 and the mixmaster used to be, and create a walking and biking path connecting Bloomfield to downtown Hartford.
I mean, wow. This is the transport plan of dreams. If we have to have big highways, which we do, they need to do as little damage to the fragile human fabric of our cities and towns as possible. Burying them is the right thing to do. Underground highways in Boston have been a wonder for that city, and as memories of the mismanaged Big Dig recede, it’s hard to see any real downside. Boston is better for having buried its highways, and Hartford will be the same.
The Hartford400 plan is optimistic, forward-thinking, and urbanist in the best way possible. I love it not just because it allows me to imagine a brighter future, but because I’ve been looking at the past. I’ve had occasion recently to look through planning and marketing documents from Hartford from the 1950s and 1960s, the era when the Front Street neighborhood and a huge swath bisecting the city were razed to build I-84, I-91, and Constitution Plaza. The loss was incalculable and Hartford has never recovered.
The one thing that struck me reading through all those old documents was just how sure of themselves those mid-century planners were. They thought they were doing a huge public service by clearing away what they saw as decaying, blighted neighborhoods in order to make Hartford a futuristic city of featureless skyscrapers and wide ribbons of highway. The arrogance is breathtaking.
In the years since, we’ve learned a lot about how to mitigate and reverse that damage, but the one thing we’ve always lacked is something the 1950s and 1960s had in abundance: federal infrastructure money.
Joe Biden and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have been talking up a big, new infrastructure plan with an emphasis on transit and the environment lately, and I can’t help but feel a sense of déja vu. The Bushes and Clinton let America’s transportation rot, the Obama infrastructure plan wasn’t nearly as big or as transformative as it could have been, and Trump’s turned into nothing but a painful joke about an “infrastructure week” that never came, so it’s been a long, long time since we’ve seen a big transportation plan succeed. We need it, too. Our highways, roads, bridges, and rails are all in bad shape. We lag behind the rest of the developed world, especially when it comes to railways, and it’s both embarrassing and dangerous.
That’s why it’s so hard to hope that this time will be different. Congress hasn’t acted to radically remake infrastructure since the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s: why should we expect them to do anything remotely like that now?
Oddly enough, I’m cautiously optimistic. Maybe it’s because Democrats actually seem more interested in getting things done than the folly of trying to work with Republicans who loathe them. Maybe it’s because the big COVID-19 relief package that passed this month is a staggering achievement, and proof that Congress actually can do big things after all.
Or maybe I’m just getting high off the barest whiff of competence and humility here in the Biden era. I don’t know.
Can Joe Biden rebuild a country that desperately needs it? Maybe. It’s the best answer we’ve had in decades. And it’s a hope, for once, that the pie-in-the-sky transportation plans we’ve seen for Hartford for a long time might finally come to be.
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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