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August 1, 2016 Editorial

Employers must have key voice in I-84 viaduct redo

The planned remake of the I-84 viaduct poses many risks and rewards for the city of Hartford as well as the region as whole, and while all stakeholders should have a say in the process, the business community must be top of mind to urban and transportation planners as well as government officials.

As HBJ staff writer John Stearns reports in this week's issue, the multi-billion dollar reconstruction of the I-84 stretch through Hartford, which could start as early as 2021, will cause pain for motorists and businesses, but how much and for how long is still uncertain.

We urge transportation officials to choose the path least disruptive to the business community, which will have the most at stake during a construction process estimated to take at least four to seven years.

The Capital City remains Connecticut's epicenter of commerce and Hartford employers' ability to get their workers and goods in and out of the city safely and in a timely manner will be a key consideration for whether or not they choose to do business here.

A major concern, as voiced by MetroHartford Alliance CEO Oz Griebel along with many others, is that the massive headaches likely to be caused by the construction process will deter companies from moving to or expanding in Hartford. This, along with other issues the city is facing including its budget crisis and high property taxes, could have major implications on the Hartford economy's short- and long-term prospects.

For years, Hartford employers — particularly larger corporate citizens — have been shrinking their office footprint as they consolidate their workforce and allow for more flexible work-at-home schedules. The reconstruction of the I-84 viaduct only threatens to hasten or continue that trend.

Another concern, of course, is how the state chooses to finance the project. Although a decision hasn't yet been made on the design of the highway, it will cost billions no matter which plan is selected. The state's precarious financial position means transportation funding will be under constant threat, and state officials have already said tax surcharges and tolls, among other options, could be adopted to help pay for the project.

Significantly increasing the cost of companies and their employees to work in Hartford would add another roadblock to growing the city's economy.

While we urge caution, it does appear state transportation officials are taking seriously the concerns of businesses and other stakeholders. The state Department of Transportation and its project consultants have held myriad public meetings and gatherings to get input on the project design and implementation.

Griebel told HBJ the process has been “extremely well-managed and highly participatory,” so far, but, of course, the devil will be in the final plan details.

It's too early to talk specifics about construction since there's no decision yet on the new design, although there's apparent consensus on a combination of ground-level and “capped” freeway, which is less costly than other options, including building a tunnel.

State transportation officials are also considering several construction methods, including an accelerated approach that would cause more short-term disruption, but significantly shorten the construction timeframe, possibly cutting the completion timeline in half. The business community must have a significant say on these types of ideas and decisions.

And of course, we recognize the potential positive impacts the I-84 viaduct reconstruction could have on Hartford, including improving traffic flows and re-connecting portions of the city long separated by the highway, which could open up economic development opportunities.

We just urge caution and continued collaboration as officials get closer to making final decisions.

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