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Taking a tunnel-vision approach to I-84/I-91 interchange realignment

May 13, 2017
Op-Ed and Letters

This Op-Ed was orginally published in the Journal Inquirer on May 13, 2017. It can be viewed here

By John B. Larson

Beatrice Fox Auerbach was a remarkable woman by any standard, with enormous influence stemming from her leadership of the iconic G. Fox & Co. and her relationships with prominent political figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Abe Ribicoff.

So strong was that influence, that when the interstate highway system came of age during the Eisenhower administration, it was at her insistence that I-84 and I-91 in Hartford aligned to accommodate the business interests of New England’s largest department store.

However good this alignment was for G. Fox at the time, it had unintended consequences that were not beneficial for the capital region’s transportation needs.

It divided Hartford’s neighborhoods and cut off access to the riverfront. In East Hartford, the I-84/Route-2 interchange known as the “mixmaster,” displaced homeowners in the meadows, in an area equivalent to that of downtown Hartford. These problems are only further compounded by a deteriorating levee system that threatens both sides of the river in what could be a catastrophic event.

A beltway system around the city was long ago proposed and rejected, and with limited room to widen I-84, building horizontally offers little relief and does not provide a long-term solution.

That’s why a vertical solution is a better way to address our infrastructure needs.

The vision is to tunnel I-84 from the Flatbush Avenue area in Hartford to the Roberts Street area in East Hartford and I-91 in Hartford from Riverside Park area to the MDC treatment facility in the meadows. The Connecticut Department of Transportation is working on the realignment of the I-84 and I-91 interchange that is bottlenecked on the Bulkeley Bridge and is committed to fast-tracking a study of this concept.

This tunnel approach has enormous benefits. It would be a turnkey operation, keeping the existing Aetna viaduct open during tunnel construction, preventing a costly shutdown of our city.

When completed, the Bulkeley Bridge, the Founders Bridge, and the Charter Oak Bridge would be repurposed into boulevards that accommodate local vehicle traffic, transit, pedestrians, and bikes. It will open up 150 acres in Hartford, East Hartford, and along the Connecticut River for development and open space, making these communities livable and accessible. This new vibrant urban core with intermodal connectivity will attract and retain residents and businesses.

This plan also allows us to repair our eroding levee systems before a tragedy happens.

The Army Corps of Engineers has identified worrisome vulnerabilities due to I-91’s configuration on the land side of the flood walls. The civil engineering term known “underseepage” needs to be fixed by restoring the land-side gradient. Tunneling allows us to do that. Not only will tunneling protect the city from the threat of flooding but it will also open up greater access to the river, a 50-year vision of Riverfront Recapture.

The I-84/I-91 interchange carries 275,000 vehicles a day — comparable to the traffic of the George Washington Bridge. A significant portion of these vehicles are passing through the city, causing severe congestion for Connecticut residents that would be alleviated through tunneling.

Directing those vehicles through a tunnel bypass would allow traffic to flow smoothly without clogging up local roads in Hartford.

Hartford sits on bedrock made of Jurassic basalt — ideal for tunnel construction. At this moment, the MDC is beginning work on a 4-mile long water conveyance tunnel that will be built below Hartford without disturbing the surface.

While tunnels may cost more in the short term than replacing the viaduct, they address the I-84/I-91 interchange capacity issue, remove the barriers dividing our cities, and repair the crumbling levee system, therefore being more cost-effective for the future.

In January, I hosted a delegation from Connecticut for a workshop with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Build America Bureau. This workshop demonstrated that projects like this are possible with a combination of traditional funding and innovative financing.

Most importantly, we learned that this can be done if we coordinate our efforts.

The General Assembly is taking up legislation to advance this project. The reception from the public has been overwhelmingly positive. This plan has support from business leaders and stakeholders, including local, state, and federal officials. I look forward to continuing to work with ConnDOT and to gather feedback from the public to move this concept forward.

Elected officials need to work collaboratively on behalf of citizens to improve their lives. This 100-year vision provides an opportunity to build a truly livable community for generations to come.

I envision a transportation system that unites us, not divides us, where you can walk directly from a National Park at Coltsville to the river without crossing an eight-lane highway. Together, we can help in the transformation of Hartford, East Hartford, and the entire region.

The writer is the U.S. representative for the 1st District.