Alternatives to the Highway Through Hartford

Posted on Friday, March 26 2010 by Heather Brandon

A consultant-led public workshop—the second of three in a series guided by Boston-based Goody Clancy—took place last night at the downtown Hartford public library. The focus: what to do about the highway through Hartford, specifically the section known as the viaduct.

The piece of highway is a poorly designed, raised section roughly between Sisson Avenue and Union Station (between exits 46 and 48/49 or so). The state department of transportation will have to do something with the stretch anyway, as it’s aged and in need of replacement. A community initiative (the Hub of Hartford) to consider alternatives has evolved to the point where the public is now able to weigh options realistically and methodically.

Last night’s meeting was an opportunity to weigh preliminary options through the lens of Goody Clancy’s matrix assessment. Each of five distinct alternatives developed so far was considered with respect to its merits on urban design and land use, transportation design, and contribution toward economic development and market potential.

On the last point, Goody Clancy is collaborating with ZHA, Inc. to consider economic development criteria specifically. Sarah Woodworth of ZHA briefly summarized the points as follows: economic development entails physical access, downtown vitality, and flexibility of transportation modes. It also involves examining real estate—land available for development and especially the potential for multimodal transit around Union Station. Further, it involves community development—better connections made across areas of the city, preferably multimodal ones. Taken together, these are all criteria considered under the broad heading of economic development.

On to the alternatives. What shall we do with the broken highway?

1. Enhanced viaduct (baseline alternative)


An enhanced viaduct will result in a more attractive updated highway structure similar to what exists, but made with better materials and with reduced and simplified exit/entrance ramps. It could open up some land for development (especially where there are unused, abandoned, dead end ramps removed). The viaduct would still serve as a barrier to community development. On urban design and economic development, it ranks “fair”; on transportation design, it’s simply “good.” It’s also one of the lower-cost alternatives.

2. Skyway viaduct

A skyway viaduct would take the same route as the existing viaduct, but would eliminate on/off ramps between the two endpoints, perhaps reducing the footprint of the highway. The viaduct would be greatly elevated, providing what some have said would be a nicer view of the area from its height. Like an enhanced viaduct, it ranks “fair” on urban design and economic development. It also ranks “fair” on transportation design, because of the greater limitations on access. On cost, it ranks slightly more expensive than an enhanced viaduct. The highway would still be a physical barrier (limiting community development). Slightly more real estate would open up compared to the first alternative.

3. Boulevard

boulevardA boulevard would take the same corridor as the existing highway but would bring everything down to street level at a relatively high rate of speed. Because of this, it would still effectively divide the city, and routing crossing streets and rail around, over or through would become a challenge. Effectively this alternative would become a “mini-viaduct,” especially because the rail corridor crosses its path and would require some kind of bridge to get over it. Thus it makes access difficult, as it might slow through-traffic down significantly. The sheer volume of traffic, Woodworth said, would probably make any new building development along the corridor “put its back to the boulevard” because of its general lack of pleasant aesthetics. Consultant David Spillane asked those in attendance to ask themselves whether we should even discuss this option further. On urban design and economic development, it ranks “fair”; on transportation, it ranks “poor.” On cost, it’s relatively low and comparable with the baseline case (number one).

4. Tunnel

tunnel-1A tunnel highway would open the entire stretch of the I-84 viaduct to potential new real estate development and street redesign, while preserving access and flexibility for both through traffic and local traffic. Mixed-use development could be constructed, helping to connect areas of the city that are currently forced apart by the highway barrier. The lone major drawback is cost, as tunneling itself is rather expensive, and so is dealing with the existing underground infrastructure like the buried Park River conduits. On urban design and economic development, this alternative ranks “very good”; on transportation, “good”; and on cost, it’s simply a very pricey option.

5. Composite tunnel/viaduct

composite-tunnelviaductA combined tunnel/viaduct could include a simplified, reduced, updated elevated highway for part of the corridor (between Sisson and Sigourney, for example), and a buried highway closer to Asylum Avenue and Union Station. On/off ramps could be redesigned and some new city streets constructed to improve the street grid. It focuses the tunneling cost investment where it might matter most, around the train station, where multimodal concerns and options need to be most flexible. On urban design, economic development and transportation it ranks “good,” and on cost, it is moderate—pricier than simple replacement, but significantly less costly than burying the entire stretch of highway.

During last night’s meeting, the public was divided into three working groups to assess all five alternatives and weigh their merits and drawbacks. An additional suggestion is said to have emerged to shift a portion of the rail line southward in order to accommodate a possible street-level boulevard. The consultants may take that under consideration in developing and honing the alternatives to be presented at a final public meeting later this spring.


Generally the focus is to narrow these down to about three very realistic alternatives that the public could support—not to pick just one, but to generate a range of choices that would each be acceptable. Ultimately, the DOT will do what it will, but the more public support and agreement behind these alternatives, the more likelihood the DOT can come up with a solution that will truly succeed.

9 Responses to “Alternatives to the Highway Through Hartford”

  1. Amanda

    I believe that the viaduct in the center portion near Aetna really isn’t the issue: land is developed right up against the viaduct, and the car & pedestrian crossings work well. Where the viaduct truly divides the city is at either end: on the west, the Sisson Avenue interchange’s vast expanse of unusable land, and on the east the highway divides downtown from Hartford’s north end. The study seems to be trying to mitigate one problem area by shrinking the size of the Sisson ramps (although I would argue that we could get rid of them entirely), but apparently has not even been asked to consider the more crucial North End/Downtown division.

  2. Heather Brandon

    From what I can tell, the state has had some pressing reasons to shore up the viaduct in the near term because it’s essentially a long, deteriorating bridge. An undated DOT slideshow presentation (PDF) – maybe from 2006 – details some of the problems with the viaduct, and notes the plans for immediate work as well as a need for long-term planning for the whole I-84 corridor.

    In community discussions led by Goody Clancy it’s quite evident that there is a need to address the whole I-84 corridor through Hartford and beyond it – it’s a common sense issue that citizens repeatedly reference. The city divide extends the length of the highway and seems especially problematic between downtown and the North End. When we doodled on maps and talked about what would work better it was also natural to refer to traffic backups on the bridge and congestion issues that extend into West Hartford and further south and west.

    The scope of work for this particular study is just the viaduct. Maybe someone involved in the Hub of Hartford can explain to us if there are multiple reasons for that narrow focus, bridge deterioration aside.

    The DOT will be the party responsible for generating a design and making sure it’s implemented. I would hope any best practices applied in figuring out how to solve some problems along the viaduct would be applicable as well for the areas to either side of it and that the DOT is paying close attention (it seems they are).

  3. David

    Option #5 sounds very similar in “feel” to the approach to downtown Boston from the south on I -93, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In Boston, the road goes up on a viaduct to cross over a number of local streets and railroad tracks, then plunges into the Central Artery Tunnel underneath the downtown. Was there any discussion of issues that tunnel options might encounter with portions of the Park River conduit?

  4. Heather Brandon

    Yes there has been some discussion of the challenges of tunneling around or near the river conduit. There are many elements converging in some tight spaces and the conduit might have to be relocated if a tunnel needs to come close to the existing conduit. The map below shows the conduit in light blue where it crosses the viaduct in a couple of places.

    The two images below show cross-sections of how the viaduct and conduit are related to each other in some spots, and also where the planned busway and rail lines are located.

  5. David

    After looking at the graphics you just posted, I guess I should have said the “Gully Brook Conduit.” That was the branch that looked most concerning to me. It looks like the alignments for the tunnel options are already coming up out of the ground at that point, so I-84 can make it over the railroad tracks as it heads eastward. In that case, maybe there isn’t a need to worry about the Gully Brook Conduit, but it also looks like a pretty steep climb to get out of the tunnel and over the railroad tracks in such a short distance.

  6. Heather Brandon

    Agreed, steep climb perhaps, but hopefully it would work out so tunneling directly through the conduit area wouldn’t be necessary.

  7. Sheila McElwaine http://!?

    Heather, Springfield misses you.

  8. Bill Mocarsky

    In all 3 alternatives, the railroad stayed intact in its present location. The thinking was that lowering the corridor so it can go under Asylum would require a long descent.
    The most recent suggestion is to keep the railroad north of the rebuilt highway. There are several advantages:
    a) The highway and railroad would be untangled. 2 criss-crosses (viaduct area and north of Union Station) would be eliminated.
    b) There would be little if any vertical change needed for the railroad to go under Asylum Street.
    c) The RR corridor would be a little straighter and about 500 feet shorter.
    d) It has been projected that the transportation center needs to expand. An addition that spans the (depressed) highway would put a new entrance at the gateway to Asylum Hill. If the likes of The Hartford and Aetna have a stake in the future of rail and nearby economic development, shouldn’t they be thrilled by this prospect?

  9. Kerri

    Congrats on receiving 3rd place in the Hartford Advocate Best Local Blog category.

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