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Capitol Area: From Asphalt Desert To Gem

March 4, 2007
Commentary By TONI GOLD

I am intrigued by a bill that might actually lead to the reduction of state-owned surface parking lots in central Hartford.

The bill, from state Rep. David McCluskey, would direct state officials to inventory all state-owned and -leased parking lots in the Capitol district with a view to reducing the asphalt desert that surrounds the Capitol complex and liberating those acres "for the purpose of community and economic development."


Such an action has been the fervent wish of many Hartford officials and residents for years. Does it have legs in the General Assembly this year? Here's an idea to help it along: Marry the proposal to several others that are already underway in the same general area. Connect it to:

The Hartford-New Britain busway project that is currently stuck trying to find a way through the No Man's Land in this area,of which the parking morass is a part.

The Hartford 2010 planning that is going on now for the Asylum-Farmington-Broad Street "trident" by the planning team led by Ken Greenberg.

The Farmington Avenue Alliance's plans for the revitalization of Farmington Avenue; and a transportation study being done of the Union Station area, where two I-84 ramps join the street.

Here's the point: It's all the same project.

First, as planners have said for years, the area around the Capitol should be planned as a campus. With the great public buildings and the park, it should be a gem, a statement about Connecticut.

But to make this possible, smart growth and common sense suggest that all of the planning efforts work together to ameliorate or eliminate the most ugly, dangerous and economically depressive infrastructure complex that the state of Connecticut has ever built.

The Aetna Viaduct, which runs through the Capitol area, is an elevated section of Interstate 84, approximately three-fifths of a mile long, in Hartford. It extends from Exit 46 (Sisson Avenue) through Exit 48 (Asylum/Capitol), and consists of a series of connected bridges ranging in condition from "poor" to "satisfactory."

It was completed in back in 1965, so the current cost of maintenance is very high. In late 2006 "A Study Report for the Aetna Viaduct" was completed by the firm of Hardesty & Hanover under contract with the state Department of Transportation.

In the introduction, the authors say that their goal: "is to recommend a feasible, cost effective, and constructible solution to rehabilitate this deteriorating, heavily traveled bridge. Future roadway capacity and serviceability issues, beyond construction impacts, will not be addressed in this study."

The life of the recommended rehabilitation was projected at 10 years. Later, DOT officials learned that the Federal Highway Administration, which typically funds 80 percent of such work, would fund only a 20-year upgrade. The project became a 20-year upgrade. The department has sought $100 million for this work. If funded in this session of the legislature, design work would begin immediately. Construction is projected to begin in 2009 and take three years. Upon completion, the road would presumably be good until 2032.

In other words, the decision has already been made by the DOT to prolong the life of the Aetna Viaduct - the most dysfunctional, disruptive piece of highway in Connecticut - for another generation.

The Hardesty and Hanover study also says: "A long-term strategy for replacement of the viaduct structures, with an emphasis on alternative facilities improvement and a general upgrade of the transportation system through the greater Hartford region should be developed, and implementation should proceed within the next 10-15 years." And, "This section of highway has extremely high volumes, high speeds, high truck percentages, and entering and exiting roadways. Safety, economic and pollution issues need to be thoroughly addressed in any planned reconstruction of this section of I-84."

And all we're getting is an expensive patch job? Where are the plans for this larger strategy that is recommended and is so badly needed? It seems pretty obvious that the probability of seeing the larger redesign project undertaken by the DOT much before 2032 is slim to none.

Perhaps as the price for this narrow and expensive highway rehabilitation project - say, a million dollars of that $100 million - should be used to start the long-term "replacement of viaduct structures."

Toni Gold of Hartford is a consultant and a senior associate with Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit whose mission is to create and sustain public places that build communities. She is a member of the Place Board of Contributors.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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