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Aetna Viaduct: DOT Finally On Board

Editorial by TOM CONDON

April 13, 2008

A question I've been curious about for years: Why was I-84 built right through the middle of Hartford?

Conventional wisdom has it that Beatrice Fox Auerbach, the head of the G. Fox & Co. department store, wanted the highway to bring customers right to her store. I'm sure she did, but it's hard to imagine she had the juice to influence such a massive public works project (though she might have).

Another thesis is that officials felt the highway should follow the railroad right of way through the city and use an existing bridge.

Maybe it was just the tenor of the times. With the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the road buildings and highway engineers were in control and nothing would stand in their way, including many of America's cities. Limited-access highways eviscerated many cities, including Hartford.

Hartford was subjected to a very unfortunate double whammy.: First I-91 cut the city off from the river, then I-84 cut the city in half.

The road gang thought of nothing but moving cars and trucks, not of the effects the road would have on the land around it.

Construction of the east-west interstate caused the loss of irreplaceable architecture, such as the former Hartford Public High School. It isolated the North End, constricted the growth of downtown, cut Asylum Hill off from downtown, impinged on the Capitol grounds and generally made the city seedier, noisier and more polluted. It sacrificed the place for the means to get through it.

The most damaging part of I-84 was, and is, the elevated section known as the Aetna Viaduct, which runs about three-fifths of a mile from Sisson Avenue to downtown.

The viaduct, completed in 1965, had a projected useful life of 30 to 40 years. In 2005, as this threshold approached, some of us dared to hope that the state Department of Transportation would do something creative to ameliorate the damage done by the elevated highway.

Alas, after a 2006 engineering report, the DOT let it be known that it would repair the viaduct as it stands, and maybe think of something else later. The long and short was that the DOT would prop up this mistake for another 20 years, if not more.

But then a remarkable thing happened. People in Asylum Hill, the West End, the business community and elsewhere began to say no, fix the damn thing. They brought in experts. Mayor Eddie Perez got on board. The group coalesced into an effort called "The Hub of Hartford."

Now the really amazing thing happened. The DOT, pushed by deputy commissioner Al Martin, joined up. The same DOT which usually goes to the mat defending bad decisions instead agreed with the community and is joining the planning effort (the department is also making safety repairs to the viaduct).

The Hub has now completed a request for proposals to engage a consultant to study alternatives to the viaduct. The city is putting up money, and the state might as well.

If all goes well, there'll be a report next year on how to redesign and de-emphasize I-84 with the goal of a vital and mixed-use center city similar to what was there before the highway was built.

The consultant will look at the possibility of burying the highway, lowering and decking over it, or rerouting the interstate traffic and turning the highway into a boulevard.

There is precedent for this, both in Hartford and around the country. In the early 1980s, a study led to the lowering of I-91 for access to the Connecticut River, courtesy of the enduring and successful Riverfront Recapture project.

Across the length and breadth of America, highways have been removed or minimized in such cities as Portland, Milwaukee, Boston, San Francisco and New York, almost invariably leading to booms in development and real estate prices.

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, a practitioner of highway removal, will visit Hartford and New Haven this week, as Norman Garrick's story on this page points out.

We will need highways for the foreseeable future, but we also need healthy cities. Many European cities have found a balance with ring highways and downtown boulevards, as well as high-speed rail and easy bicycle access.

A tip of the hat to the citizen activists who initiated the discussion here.

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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