Hartford’s Aging Viaduct Nursed Along While I-84 Expansion Project Breaks Ground in Waterbury

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy took advantage of a sunny Monday morning yesterday to tour the underside of the Interstate 84 Viaduct in Hartford and speak to reporters about the need to replace the aging structure.

The I-84 Viaduct (also known as the Aetna Viaduct) was designed to handle 55,000 vehicles each day, but today it carries a daily load of more than 175,000, making it the busiest single stretch of roadway in the entire state. The structure is beyond its useful life, and has required $60 million from the Connecticut Department of Transportation just “to nurse it along,” as Governor Malloy put it, and will likely need another $60 million to keep it in a state of good repair until there’s a consensus on how to go about replacing it permanently.

Advocates and residents have called for the viaduct, named a “Futureless Freeway” by the Congress for the New Urbanism, to be removed, which could help reconnect neighborhoods cut off by the highway. Suzanne Bigelow wrote in 2012:

I-84 through downtown Hartford is an unholy mess. In the language of urban designers, the viaduct, which is an engineer’s way of saying “elevated highway,” creates a barrier between downtown and neighborhoods like Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill. What this means in practice is that if you want to walk into downtown from the west you’ll have to cross underneath a hulking, creepy, concrete mammoth, usually on unappealing, badly-repaired and deserted sidewalks with plenty of dead land on either side […] The viaduct as it is right now is one of the many things standing in the way of creating a more vibrant and attractive Hartford, and it should be replaced with something more positive.

There are three potential alternatives to the status quo: rebuilding the highway at grade; a sunken highway similar to what exists farther east; or a tunneled highway not unlike Boston’s Big Dig. Once the state chooses an alternative, funding mechanisms will be discussed.

Governor Malloy scolded his predecessors for not dealing with the viaduct sooner, saying “a lot of people got away with not having a vision for transportation in Connecticut over last 40 years.” But even though the governor recently announced a long-term statewide transportation plan, the I-84 viaduct project is still in its early stages. “First we’ve got to have a plan,” Governor Malloy told a reporter who asked if federal funding will be an option. “We’re not at a point where we have a solution that we can go to Washington with — ‘Here’s our plan. Here’s what it’s going to cost.’ — We’re not at that stage yet.”

Even after a plan is developed and a funding source is identified, the I-84 project likely won’t break ground for another five years. About 24 miles to the southwest, however, construction is already underway on the $300 million widening of a 2.7-mile stretch of the same highway.

The I-84 widening in Waterbury, which broke ground on April 1, was originally estimated to cost $400 to $500 million, based on needs identified in a 1998 Environmental Assessment. Interstate 84 is four lanes wide (two in each direction) in this area. The widening project will add a third lane on each side. For just 5.4 lane miles of highway, $300 million is an enormous sum. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, expanding a four lane interstate to six lanes costs “about $4 million per mile.” Tri-State appealed to ConnDOT to pursue other congestion mitigation measures before embarking on the expansion, but plans to widen the road were already in motion.

Connecticut receives $486.5 million each year from the federal government for highway projects under MAP-21. With the state giving priority to a costly highway expansion in a shrinking city, it’s no surprise there is no funding for the long-overdue replacement of Hartford’s aging viaduct.

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