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January 6, 2023

Plan to rebuild Hartford highways gaining support, waiting for DOT

COURTESY / SUISMAN URBAN DESIGN / IQUILT PARTNERSHIP The 'Hartford 400' plan would remove one of the biggest traffic bottlenecks in the state.

If brought to fruition, it could be the most ambitious public works project in Connecticut this century, a radical redesign and reconstruction of the infrastructure in the core of the capital region. 

But first, everyone has to agree that it’s a good idea — and a key state agency has yet to be heard from. 

The project, announced two years ago, is called Hartford 400. It calls for the removal of the massive highway interchanges in Hartford and East Hartford, the construction of new bridges and tunnels, more parkland and the reconnection of North Hartford to downtown, among other things.

It is a daunting endeavor: preliminary estimates predict it will take 15 years and cost $17 billion. But some of that money is in the till.

Counting more than $6 million in the recently enacted Consolidated Appropriations Act, the project has drawn more than $10 million in public and private funding for economic analysis, preliminary engineering and specific elements of the overall project. 

With more federal infrastructure funding becoming available, “this is becoming achievable,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin at a recent press conference at which U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, announced a $900,000 federal earmark for the project. 

Also, the project’s design, by Hartford native and Los Angeles-based urban designer Doug Suisman, has won wide local praise and this fall garnered two major awards.

The potential benefits to the region are plentiful, said Larson, an ardent supporter, who ticked them off at the press conference: the project will open large swathes of downtown land in Hartford and East Hartford for economic development and recreation; improve mobility and alleviate the worst traffic bottleneck in the state; repair the decaying dikes along the river to prevent a Katrina-like catastrophe; and improve air quality and public health.

But keeping a complex, multi-year project on track is a huge challenge.

“Long term continuity is in short supply,” architect and planner Patrick Pinnell observed. Supporters could leave office, business interests could object, funding could dry up, and so on. 

The first challenge, at this point, is that the state Department of Transportation, indispensable to the project, has yet to sign off on it. 

Suisman said in a recent interview that along with the funding, the keys to bringing a long-term project to fruition are vision, leadership and a deadline.

A deadline, Suisman said, helps focus the effort and make it easier to organize the work. He cited as an example preparations for the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, on which “everyone is working like crazy.” The deadline is in the title: it would be more than a little embarrassing if the city weren’t ready to host the 2028 Games in 2028.

The deadline for the Hartford project is 2035, The city’s 400th anniversary, hence the project’s name. It is an ambitious timeframe.

As for leadership, the governor and his commissioners of transportation and economic development must be on board. Gov. Ned Lamont has indicated support for the project, as has House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. Larson has garnered support from other members of the state’s Congressional delegation. 

But since many of the current officeholders will leave and be replaced over the course of a long project, it may be necessary to create an agency or authority to oversee the project, Suisman said. 

But how it is run likely will depend on how the vision comes together. It is still not unanimous, in part because we’ve reached this point via two separate but more or less parallel planning processes, one of which is not yet complete.

The 1960s-era highway system in Hartford was criticized almost as soon as it was built, for isolating parts of the city, poorly designed ramps and generally sacrificing too much of the place, including historic buildings, for the ability to drive to or through it.

About two decades ago, the DOT began planning to replace the 2.5-mile series of viaducts that carry I-84 through much of Hartford. The DOT first considered simply repairing the viaducts as they stood, but a citizens group urged the department to broaden its thinking and undo some of the damage the highway did to the city. 

Department planners first considered bringing the elevated highway down to grade level as an urban boulevard. This would have cured the walling effect of the viaduct, but would not have solved the traffic congestion. I-84 was designed to carry 55,000 cars a day but by then was carrying more than three times that number, 175,000 vehicles. Add 100,000 on I-91, and the interchange was seriously overburdened. 

In 2016, then-DOT Commissioner James Redeker initiated a study of the I-84/I-91 interchange, looking for a way to reduce the congestion.  

Shortly thereafter, Larson himself came up with a plan to bring the highway traffic through an elaborate series of tunnels and asked DOT engineers to study it. They didn’t think it would work. They came up with a different solution, a “northern alignment,” which would bring I-84 on a new, capped connector through the city’s Clay Arsenal neighborhood to the North Meadows, then over a new bridge over the Connecticut River to reconnect to the existing highway in East Hartford.

Larson didn’t think that plan went far enough to recapture the river. Finally, in 2019, DOT pulled back the I-84 study and replaced it with a three-year regional mobility study, saying the region’s infrastructure needed a more “holistic approach.” 

That study is due to be completed in 2023.

In 2007-08, leaders of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts initiated an urban design effort to better connect downtown Hartford’s arts and cultural institutions and make the area more inviting for pedestrians and bicyclists.

They hired Suisman, who proceeded to design the iQuilt, a loose-footed “green walk” of public spaces, some new and some restored, running from the river to Bushnell Park and the Capitol. A nonprofit, the iQuilt Partnership was created to execute the plan, which has quietly made downtown a more pleasant and less intimidating place to walk.

The iQuilt folks decided to keep the their project going, with a broader scope. Suisman recalled that Hartford was nearing its 400th anniversary, in 2035. Using that as a deadline and the river as a focus, the group, backed with a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, created a vision.

Suisman said in a recent interview that the DOT’s decision to study the possible relocation of the I-84/I-91 interchange opened the door to bigger thinking about how the region could evolve.

Studying earlier plans, taking parts of the DOT plan and Larson’s tunnel concept, Suisman created Hartford 400. 

One of several issues with the current highway system is that it was never finished. It was supposed to include a ring road, but only a small portion of it, from Windsor to Manchester, was built. Thus both local and through traffic are funneled into the choked downtown interchange.

The Hartford 400 plan would create a kind of inner ring, though roughly triangular in shape.  The base of the triangle would be I-84 in a tunnel running east from the Flatbush Avenue entrance to I-84; it would pass beneath South Hartford and surface just in time to cross the river via the Charter Oak Bridge. It would then rejoin the existing I-84 roadway through East Hartford towards Boston.

The second part of the triangle would run roughly where the I-84 viaduct is today. It would be a capped highway, below ground, emerging around the XFinity Theater. It would allow an eastbound driver on I-84 to connect to I-91 north towards Springfield.

The third leg of the triangle would run north-south below ground in East Hartford, connecting both Route 2 and I-84 west across a new Connecticut River Bridge and connecting to I-91 at an enlarged Jennings Road interchange. 

The triangular configuration allows the removal of both the I-84-I-91 interchange and almost all of the Mixmaster in East Hartford, freeing up more than 100 acres of prime urban land.

I-91 would run through through the middle of the triangle, on its current route but lowered and capped from Coltsville to Riverside Park. The cap above the highway would carry a new thoroughfare called River Road, bordered by new development on one side and new parkland on the other — effectively a 1.5 mile southward extension of Riverside Park. Thirteen streets would connect to River Road, allowing local traffic, bikes and pedestrians to connect to the river along the city’s entire riverfront.

With the triangle pattern in place, there would no longer be a need for the portion of I-84 from Union Station to the Bulkeley Bridge — now an elevated curve that drops into a 200-foot-wide trench — that walls off the North End from downtown. Morgan Street, now little more than a highway access ramp, could again become a street, connecting Main Street to the riverfront.

The project also includes a 7-mile linear park, to be called the HartLine, that would be built from Bloomfield along the little-used Griffin rail line to downtown and then to East Hartford across the Bulkeley Bridge. A branch of the HartLine would cross over I-91 near Dunkin’ Donuts Park via a new ramped bridge called RiverLink, replacing the present desolate structure with a more welcoming path from North Hartford and downtown directly into Riverside Park.

The Hartford 400 plan has been well received by local planners and officials and has received national attention. He and the iQuilt Partnership have been selected to receive the prestigious 2022 Witte-Sakamoto Family Medal in City and Regional Planning from the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The judges called Hartford 400 an “exemplary plan.”

The project also just received the 2022 Honor Award in Urban Design from the California chapter of the American Institute of Architects, who called the plan “transformative.”

Will the DOT’s mobility study endorse and support Hartford 400?

Strategic communications manager Shannon King Burnham responded to a CT Mirror inquiry with a guarded but positive statement:

“The Greater Hartford Mobility Study’s vision for enhanced mobility through an integrated, resilient, and multimodal transportation system shares many common goals with Hartford 400. The study includes similar concepts and recommendations in its universe of alternatives — several of which are moving through the screening process for detailed modeling and analysis.”

So, we’ll see.

Some may find it unusual that a public infrastructure plan can emanate from a private source, but Suisman said it happens as often as not. Good ideas are where you find them. For example, the hugely popular Belt Line in Atlanta, a 22-mile loop of multi-use trails and transit, was imagined by a graduate architecture student at Georgia Tech.

Locally, Riverfront Recapture, which has built a system of parks and amenities along both sides of the river that Hartford 400 would enhance, was founded by an executive at the Travelers Cos. Riverfront is a nonprofit that continues to expand parkland and trails. Similarly, iQuilt is a nonprofit that would help raise funds and coordinate the Hartford 400 effort.

Jackie Gorsky Mandyck, executive director of the iQuilt Partnership, said nonprofits such as hers play a regional coordination role that counties might play in other states. 

Indeed, projects that cover more than one municipality often are challenging in Connecticut. But in this case the two primary towns, Hartford and East Hartford,  are on the same page, in full support of Hartford 400, said Bronin and East Hartford Mayor Mike Walsh. 

Obviously the funding is a sine qua non for the project, but the federal government appears to have rediscovered large-scale infrastructure investment, evidenced by last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will provide $550 billion over five years. Larson’s office provided a list of more than a dozen other possible sources of government infrastructure funding that could support Hartford 400, including such programs as the Community Project Funding acts of 2022 and 2023 and the Reconnect Communities pilot program.

Larson’s full-fledged support is vital to the project. He has long taken an interest in the region’s infrastructure and shepherded a relatively major project, the Coltsville Historical Park in Hartford’s South Meadows, to fruition. 

At 74, the Congressman has represented the First District since 1999. Hartford 400 could be his legacy, or a large part of it. He calls the project “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” 

Is it all a pipe dream? Anyone who thinks so should look at Fall River, Mass., where a “very similar” project just broke ground, Suisman said in an email. It involves the removal of a four-lane elevated highway to reconnect downtown to the Taunton River waterfront. It will free urban land for housing and economic development and reconnect the city’s North End neighborhood to the river.

Suisman compared the Hartford highway system to the frame of a house. He said while the frame and its foundation are important, you don’t live in the frame, you live in the rooms. Hartford’s rooms are its streets, squares, parks and buildings. But you can’t build those rooms with an old frame that blocks the outdoors and isolates family members from each other. 

“We need a new frame.”

Finally, it is ironic, or perhaps unfortunate, that if Hartford 400 moves ahead, the major infrastructure project of the 21st century in Greater Hartford will involve correcting the errors made in the 20th century’s biggest project. Said Larson: “We have to get it right this time.”

This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.

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