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August 1, 2016

I-84 viaduct remake weighs heavily on businesses, motorists, DOT

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns Richard Armstrong, principal engineer at the state Department of Transportation (left), and Dave Stahnke, engineer, principal and senior vice president at TranSystems, show a drawing of the I-84 project area through downtown Hartford.
PHOTO | Contributed An aerial view of the two-mile long I-84 Hartford viaduct, which divides the Capital City and guides more than 175,000 vehicles per day.

Think of the construction project to replace the I-84 viaduct through downtown Hartford this way: You can peel the Band-Aid off slowly, or rip it off as quickly as possible.

Lingering discomfort vs. short jolt of pain.

Richard Armstrong, principal engineer at the state Department of Transportation, heard someone use that Band-Aid analogy and shared it to visualize the kind of construction options DOT and the community will have to consider before the expected viaduct replacement project begins around 2021.

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.

What is certain, however, is that the construction project will be complicated for engineers and builders and painful for motorists and some businesses — it's a matter of how painful, slow peel or quick pull.

Building an at-grade/capped highway conventionally — lane reductions and restrictions, temporary ramps and bridges, trying to keep traffic moving as close to normal as possible (think I-84 Waterbury work today) — could take four to seven years, Armstrong said. An accelerated plan using more disruptive construction processes (think I-84 Southington bridge replacement two years ago when the highway was a closed for three days and prebuilt bridges dropped in place), could perhaps cut that time in half. While shutting down I-84 at times may not be feasible in Hartford, other accelerated methods could be considered.

“How you build it is probably more complicated than what you build in the final configuration,” Armstrong said. “So it certainly would be several years, and of course we want to explore … , 'What if we were more aggressive with construction, cause greater impacts, but really reduce the time? … Because five or six years of impacts, that's not a short-term impact.”

Knoxville, Tenn., did a similarly complicated freeway construction project and closed Interstate 40 for about 14 months after weighing safety (for workers, of course, but also motorists who are easily distracted by construction equipment and people, have to navigate tight lanes, cones, temporary signage, etc.) and economic impacts of longer versus shorter construction, said Dave Stahnke, engineer, principal and senior vice president at Meriden-based TranSystems, the program manager overseeing all phases of the project for Connecticut DOT. Knoxville also has more convenient bypasses onto other highway systems for traffic, he said.

“One of the things they keyed on is the safety,” Stahnke said.

While it's too early to talk construction methods before a design has even been selected, Oz Griebel, president and CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, is confident DOT will do the right thing by the community based on its actions so far.

“This has been, to date … an extremely well-managed and highly participatory effort that DOT has led,” Griebel said of meetings with businesses and others that will be affected. “This engagement of the public, particularly the private-sector employers as the project's construction schedule starts, is going to be even more critical so that people have confidence that all the options from a construction standpoint have been evaluated and people's opinions and thoughts are in there, (and) that we begin to develop options for getting in and out of the city.”

Those could include discounts on CTfastrak for people going in and out of the city at rush hour, adding more buses on other routes to encourage bus use and more offsite work options for downtown workers, he said.

“There's no question that a construction project of this magnitude, once the funding sources are identified and once the project actually moves into construction phase, that it's got significant impact on everybody's lives,” Griebel said.

Griebel said his biggest concern now is making sure the massive construction project doesn't deter employers from expanding in or moving to the Capital City.

Complex construction

Before any construction begins, the federal government has to sign off on whatever's decided — whether doing nothing (which really means spending tens of millions of dollars to maintain the aging, overcapacity, poorly designed viaduct), burying I-84 in a tunnel or doing the combination at-grade/cap concept at a fifth of the cost of a tunnel. In addition, the Feds must also ensure state funding is in place to complete it.

So what is this capping concept?

After dropping the highway to ground level or slightly below, it means covering it with a cap over which there could be parks, roads, bike and walking paths and development. In areas where the ground is flat, the cap would be contoured over the freeway.

“You're actually building the structure over the highway and then you can actually grade up and over it, so it's kind of like a mound almost,” Stahnke said.

At Asylum Hill, where Asylum Avenue climbs up from downtown past the freeway, the cap would blend into the hill as the road is cut into it.

Support for capping is greatest in the roughly 1,000 feet between Asylum and Broad Street because it presents attractive options for connecting Asylum Hill to downtown and new transit-oriented development in that area, which also would include a new railroad station north of the highway, where the tracks also will be moved. Capping that portion would add about $325 million to $400 million to the project, Armstrong said.

The total base price for bringing the highway to grade, without caps, was estimated to be $4.3 billion to $5.3 billion about two years ago.

Capping the highway west of Broad could be done as far as the Park River conduit under the freeway, just west of the Hartford Courant. Capping that section, plus the Asylum-Broad section would add about $600 million to $750 million, and taking the cap about 3,000 feet from Asylum-Broad west to Sigourney would add about $1.35 billion to $1.65 billion in cost.

Capping costs about $400,000 per foot, Stahnke said, or 20 percent of the cost to tunnel, at $2 million per foot.

In a poll of the project's public advisory committee, which includes businesses and other stakeholders, a majority thought capping between Asylum and Broad was a good value, “as we got further to the west, that percentage came down,” Stahnke said.

But there are other ways to reduce the visual impact of the highway to the west, including using decorative sound barriers that could be bordered by linear parks.

While the capping costs are add-ons to the base budget of $4.3 billion to $5.3 billion, that $1 billion range means much of the cap could fit into the budget if the project were built using accelerated construction methods that reduced the construction time and cost closer to $4.3 billion before cap premiums.

While the ultimate design and construction method is yet to be decided, there's no getting around the project's impact.

“There's going to be some amount of temporary impact and it's a matter of the duration and the severity — and that's why we want to have a number of scenarios evaluated and presented and discussed with the business community, with the public, so that whatever decision we make, hopefully there's consensus that this is the best way to go,” Armstrong said.

Stahnke said people seem to be looking beyond the work to the end product.

“There's a lot of good things happening out of this project, so I think most of the employers and businesses have really understood this and can see the final product and realize the benefits of what they're going to see at the end, but we're going to do everything we can to minimize this (impact) as best as possible,” he said.

Those benefits include eliminating the barrier I-84 creates today; running cross streets over the highway on attractive, pedestrian- and bike-friendly bridges; about 40 acres of new development space created for parks, buildings, bike and pedestrian paths, much of that space coming from elimination of unnecessary ramps; creation of a new boulevard along the west edge of Bushnell Park between Asylum and Broad; a dedicated corridor for the East Coast Greenway, possibly on an elevated platform akin to New York City's High Line linear park; and improved highway safety and flow from better ramp design.

Patience needed

The highway, which was designed for 50,000 vehicles a day when it opened in the 1960s with a projected 50-year service life, has about 175,000 vehicles a day now and it had 1,850 motor vehicle accidents from 2009 through 2011 in the Hartford section, according to the project website,

While drivers will need to pack patience during construction, they have a few years before the orange cones appear.

Assuming a design is chosen by mid-2017, an environmental impact statement must be done, a process expected to spill into 2018, followed by a federal record of decision that includes a financial plan, after which the project can move from about 30 percent design to full design, Armstrong said. It would be late 2018 or early 2019 before the project ball starts rolling.

Next, engineering and design, and acquiring properties like the Capitol View Apartments to make way for the project would occur, which would take another two to three years, pushing the construction start date to 2021, 2022 or 2023.

“Then, is it several years or is it two years of construction?” Armstrong said. “We don't know at this point.”

A conventional construction project could take four to seven years, potentially pushing completion toward 2030, but it's unknown yet whether the community would choose the slow peel of the Band-Aid or fast rip with a middle-of-next-decade finish.

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