October 31, 2016

Larson’s regional transportation vision worthy of support

David MacDonald

Connecticut legislators and Hartford city representatives need to stand up, collaborate and support Congressman John Larson's $10 billion vision to redevelop stretches of I-84 and I-91 through Hartford into tunnels.

The plan should be supported because it would encourage transit-oriented development and help reconnect the city, providing more development opportunities.

I understand the concerns about the financial feasibility of Larson's vision and I am not one to support excessive government spending. While I served on the Hartford city council as a member of the planning economic development and housing committee, for example, I opposed the baseball stadium deal on the grounds that it was a luxury we couldn't afford, and that it would seriously wound the city's financial position. Everything I predicted would go wrong two years ago has come true.

I warned my colleagues to reject the risky proposal to build a $60 million stadium in Downtown North and instead promote affordable, feasible and sustainable mixed-use, transit-oriented development in that area. We needed to focus on protecting our residential and business communities that were already struggling within the current tax rate.

Why should the city council, Connecticut legislators and transportation officials collaborate and support Larson's $10 billion plan immediately? And why should you care? The answer is simple: Larson's vision encourages transit-oriented development, which is eligible for federal funding under public-private partnership rules through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). Transit-oriented development has been used successfully in many major U.S. cities and Larson wants to bring that track record of success to Hartford.

The ISTEA of 1991 is a federal law that posed a major change to financing mixed-use transportation planning and policy. The ISTEA signed into law by President George H. W. Bush presented an overall inter-modal (multi-modal) approach to highway and transit-oriented development funding with "collaborative planning requirements," giving significant additional powers to metropolitan planning organizations to generate more program income.

ISTEA defined 80 high priority corridors during the early 1990s to be part of the National Highway System. Connecticut's I-95 and I-91 corridors are listed. I-84 is not.

Larson understands transit-oriented development is about "smart growth" and reconnecting cities and towns to increase "location efficiency density" so people can walk, bike and take transit.

Transit-oriented development can also:

• Boost transit ridership such as CTfastrak and minimize the impacts of daily commuter traffic;

• Provide additional taxable property for the public and private sectors, and investment for new and existing residents;

• Create a greater sense of community and encourage tourists to come and visit the historic city of Hartford;

• Provide a richer mix of housing ownership, jobs, shopping and recreational choices sorely needed in Hartford, clustering our major attractions not yet connected along the I-91 corridor including the Xfinity Music Theater, Riverside Park, Riverfront Recapture, Connecticut Science Center, Marriott Hotel, Connecticut Convention Center, Front Street Entertainment District, etc.;

• Increase desired taxable property and seamlessly connect Rentschler Stadium and eventually connect visitors to the former Showcase Cinema's site where a casino and other development is under consideration;

• Expedite extending CTfastrak to UConn students, faculty and staff in Storrs.

Most importantly, since the city and state cannot afford infrastructure financing options for transit-oriented development on their own dime, collaborating on Larson's plan — which is already market and design tested — can still be made financially feasible using the private investment partnership design in the ISTEA process and by leveraging the $5 billion Connecticut planners intend to spend redeveloping the I-84 viaduct in Hartford.

The current I-84 replacement planning neglects this once in a lifetime transit-oriented development, private investment opportunity that would reconnect Hartford to the Riverfront, South Meadows and Brainard Field and improve access and development along the entire I-91 high-traffic corridor. Larson's plan needs support from our state and city leaders.

David MacDonald is the former chair of the Hartford board of education and former member of Hartford city council.

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