August 14, 2017 09:41AM
By Mike Savino
U.S. Rep. John Larson is upping his push for interstates 84 and 91 to run under Hartford via tunnels, a plan he says would reconnect and revitalize the city.
Days after unveiling a proposed $1.8-billion package to fund such ambitious projects, Larson, D-1st District, made a pitch for his vision during a meeting of engineers and residents who were discussing designs for the same I-84 stretch.
“I believe it’s the most logical, it’s the most cost effective, and I think it carries the largest upside in economic development, in having communities that are livable, accessible,” he said at the meeting in Hartford.
State Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said his agency is taking Larson’s comments into consideration, but can’t slow down its I-84 project to await congressional action. The state is moving toward plans to remove a series of bridges, or viaducts, that carry a two-mile portion of I-84 through Hartford and bring the highway to the ground.
“We don’t really have the luxury of time with the existing viaduct,” Redeker said. The Department of Transportation has separately been studying the intersection of the two interstates, and could opt for a plan more in line with Larson’s vision on that project.
Larson is pushing for tunnels for both interstates, including I-84 from Flatbush Avenue in Hartford to Roberts Street in East Hartford, and from North Meadows to South Meadows along I-91. The interchanges would also be underground.
That ambitious plan got the backing of two other lawmakers from the greater Hartford area, as both Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, and Sen. Timothy Larson, D-East Hartford, and John Larson’s brother, attended a press conference Tuesday in support of John Larson’s $1.8-billion federal transportation plan.
The plan would call for a carbon tax on fossil fuels as a funding mechanism. Guerrera said tunneling the two highways would be a “huge economic boost” for the whole state to have more land for potential development in Hartford, particularly along the Connecticut River.
“It would put us on the map, now and forever,” he said. “Yes it’s going to cost us a lot of money, but we can’t we look at it as today, but as the future.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said such a massive project would rely on several steps at the federal level, though, notably passage of a transportation funding package. The state would then to revamp its project, then go back for federal approval.
Like Redeker, Malloy said the state can’t wait that long to replace the viaduct, which was completed in 1969 and is approaching its 50-year life expectancy. The state has been spending $25 million annually to repair the structure, but Malloy said that can only work for so long.
“We’re getting to the point where repairs won’t be feasible anymore,” he said, adding it “would be a dereliction of duty” for state officials to hold off on plans for the viaduct in hopes of approval for a broader project.
Of the 25 bridges that either access I-84 or carry it through the city, 10 are rated “poor” and another 10 are in “fair condition,” while four are in “satisfactory” condition and only one is rated “good.” None of the bridges is deemed “critical” or “failed.”
Richard Armstrong, principal engineer for the viaduct design team, also said tunneling for I-84 poses costs and engineering problems.
DOT’s current plans project a cost of up to $5.3 billion, but tunneling the two-mile stretch from Sisson Avenue east to just shy of the Connecticut River would cost at least twice that much.
Additionally, Armstrong said several structures in the area, including the Park River conduit, leave little room for a tunnel. As a result, the DOT would need to reduce, or possibly even eliminate, exits, which would push congestion to the ends of the tunnel.
The design team has said a ground-level highway would also allow some redesign in a roadway that fails several federal highway guidelines that came into existence shortly after the viaduct opened.
The DOT is planning to build the highway below ground level in some locations and place caps over it, which Armstrong said could accomplish the same goal as a tunnel.
Redeker said the DOT is still looking at tunnels as part of its I-84/I-91 study, as well as a bypass road and other options to help traffic get around Hartford. Part of the goal is to make sure Connecticut is has developed plans should Congress approve a transportation plan on par with Larson’s proposal.
“We want to make sure we leverage all the federal possibilities,” he said. Malloy also said the topic comes up frequently during his conversations with Larson.
He said cost will be a factor in whatever the state decides to present to federal authorities, though, and tunneling could require costs at “a rate that’s probably higher than they’re comfortable with.”