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Alternatives to the Highway Through Hartford

Heather Brandon

March 26, 2010

A consultant-led public workshop—the second of three in a series guided by Boston-based Goody Clancy—took place last night at the downtown Hartford public library. The focus: what to do about the highway through Hartford, specifically the section known as the viaduct.

The piece of highway is a poorly designed, raised section roughly between Sisson Avenue and Union Station (between exits 46 and 48/49 or so). The state department of transportation will have to do something with the stretch anyway, as it’s aged and in need of replacement. A community initiative (the Hub of Hartford) to consider alternatives has evolved to the point where the public is now able to weigh options realistically and methodically.

Last night’s meeting was an opportunity to weigh preliminary options through the lens of Goody Clancy’s matrix assessment. Each of five distinct alternatives developed so far was considered with respect to its merits on urban design and land use, transportation design, and contribution toward economic development and market potential.

On the last point, Goody Clancy is collaborating with ZHA, Inc. to consider economic development criteria specifically. Sarah Woodworth of ZHA briefly summarized the points as follows: economic development entails physical access, downtown vitality, and flexibility of transportation modes. It also involves examining real estate—land available for development and especially the potential for multimodal transit around Union Station. Further, it involves community development—better connections made across areas of the city, preferably multimodal ones. Taken together, these are all criteria considered under the broad heading of economic development.

On to the alternatives. What shall we do with the broken highway? To see images of the alternatives, click here.

1. Enhanced viaduct (baseline alternative)

An enhanced viaduct will result in a more attractive updated highway structure similar to what exists, but made with better materials and with reduced and simplified exit/entrance ramps. It could open up some land for development (especially where there are unused, abandoned, dead end ramps removed). The viaduct would still serve as a barrier to community development. On urban design and economic development, it ranks “fair”; on transportation design, it’s simply “good.” It’s also one of the lower-cost alternatives.

2. Skyway viaduct

A skyway viaduct would take the same route as the existing viaduct, but would eliminate on/off ramps between the two endpoints, perhaps reducing the footprint of the highway. The viaduct would be greatly elevated, providing what some have said would be a nicer view of the area from its height. Like an enhanced viaduct, it ranks “fair” on urban design and economic development. It also ranks “fair” on transportation design, because of the greater limitations on access. On cost, it ranks slightly more expensive than an enhanced viaduct. The highway would still be a physical barrier (limiting community development). Slightly more real estate would open up compared to the first alternative.

3. Boulevard

A boulevard would take the same corridor as the existing highway but would bring everything down to street level at a relatively high rate of speed. Because of this, it would still effectively divide the city, and routing crossing streets and rail around, over or through would become a challenge. Effectively this alternative would become a “mini-viaduct,” especially because the rail corridor crosses its path and would require some kind of bridge to get over it. Thus it makes access difficult, as it might slow through-traffic down significantly. The sheer volume of traffic, Woodworth said, would probably make any new building development along the corridor “put its back to the boulevard” because of its general lack of pleasant aesthetics. Consultant David Spillane asked those in attendance to ask themselves whether we should even discuss this option further. On urban design and economic development, it ranks “fair”; on transportation, it ranks “poor.” On cost, it’s relatively low and comparable with the baseline case (number one).

4. Tunnel

A tunnel highway would open the entire stretch of the I-84 viaduct to potential new real estate development and street redesign, while preserving access and flexibility for both through traffic and local traffic. Mixed-use development could be constructed, helping to connect areas of the city that are currently forced apart by the highway barrier. The lone major drawback is cost, as tunneling itself is rather expensive, and so is dealing with the existing underground infrastructure like the buried Park River conduits. On urban design and economic development, this alternative ranks “very good”; on transportation, “good”; and on cost, it’s simply a very pricey option.

5. Composite tunnel/viaduct

A combined tunnel/viaduct could include a simplified, reduced, updated elevated highway for part of the corridor (between Sisson and Sigourney, for example), and a buried highway closer to Asylum Avenue and Union Station. On/off ramps could be redesigned and some new city streets constructed to improve the street grid. It focuses the tunneling cost investment where it might matter most, around the train station, where multimodal concerns and options need to be most flexible. On urban design, economic development and transportation it ranks “good,” and on cost, it is moderate—pricier than simple replacement, but significantly less costly than burying the entire stretch of highway.

During last night’s meeting, the public was divided into three working groups to assess all five alternatives and weigh their merits and drawbacks. An additional suggestion is said to have emerged to shift a portion of the rail line southward in order to accommodate a possible street-level boulevard. The consultants may take that under consideration in developing and honing the alternatives to be presented at a final public meeting later this spring.

Generally the focus is to narrow these down to about three very realistic alternatives that the public could support—not to pick just one, but to generate a range of choices that would each be acceptable. Ultimately, the DOT will do what it will, but the more public support and agreement behind these alternatives, the more likelihood the DOT can come up with a solution that will truly succeed.

Alternative Urban Design Transportation Economic Development Cost
Enhanced Viaduct Fair Good Fair $$
Skyway Viaduct Fair Fair Fair $$$
Boulevard Fair Poor Fair $$
Tunnel Very Good Good Very Good $$$$$
Composite Tunnel/Viaduct Good Good Good $$$

To see images of the various alternatives published in a report, click here.

Reprinted with permission of Heather Brandon, author of the blog Urban Compass. To view other stories on this topic, search the Urban Compass at http://urbancompass.net/.
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