DOT Gets It Right

The Connecticut Department of Transportation recently presented its final Greater Hartford Mobility Planning and Environmental Linkages Study.  The complete study, with appendices, is available at here.

The study is long and detailed.  Careful reading is required to understand fully what DOT is proposing and the process that led them to these conclusions.  I haven’t read every word.  Still, for people who care about our community, it’s required reading at some level.  The study is exciting for two different but related reasons:  (1) the proposals themselves, and (2) the frank and thoughtful inclusion throughout the study of issues related to wealth, race, and equity, including the DOT’s efforts to hear, and to respond to, communities most affected by the original siting of the interstates.

I don’t read a lot of detailed planning reports from government agencies; in fact, in my lifetime I must have read fewer than ten, maybe fewer than five.  Maybe other studies are similar, but I was mildly shocked and pleasantly surprised to discover what DOT has done about the issues of race and wealth equity.  The DOT says in the Study, in direct and unambiguous language, that the siting of I-84 through greater Hartford was done without due regard for the relative impacts of the project on Black and poor people.  It’s a simple but necessary recognition of reality, without placing blame or demanding accountability.

“Infrastructure projects disconnected neighborhoods, displaced residents, destroyed cultural heritage, cut Hartford off from its riverfront, and took investment away from infrastructure to support biking, walking, and taking transit.

“The negative impacts of these projects were disproportionately felt by the region’s black, brown, and low-income residents. Property values around the highway projects declined, and these areas became the only refuge for the region’s most vulnerable residents who could not afford to live anywhere else.”

As refreshing as the recognition of the truth is, DOT’s stated commitment to do better is like a New Year’s Day leap into a New Hampshire lake.  DOT committed to remedy those negative impacts, at least to some extent, and to listen to all of greater Hartford‘s residents as it makes siting and design decisions.  DOT expressed its own institutional surprise at the importance of managing a truly equitable planning process:  “Striving for accessibility, inclusiveness, responsiveness, and transparency in the engagement strategy led the project team to some big rewards and learning moments about what an equity centered approach entails.”

DOT deserves high praise for the deliberate and thorough process that resulted in the study.  For many years, they have been examining problems with I-84 and opportunities to make improvements.  I attended a public session a few years ago at which DOT explained that I-84 needed to be rebuilt and presented three alternative proposals:  rebuild as is, bring I-84 to street level, or bury it.  DOT explained the pluses and minuses of each option, including the considerable technical difficulties of each.  Since that time, however, DOT’s process led them to understand that a more creative approach was necessary to get the highway out of Hartford and East Hartford.  They didn’t stick with what they had developed internally; they listened and learned and reconsidered all they knew to come up with a vision that will solve the I-84 replacement problem in a way that will help the city and the surrounding towns.

So what exactly is DOT proposing?  Well, you’ll need to look at the Study and the several helpful illustrations (they’re part maps, part bird’s-eye view).  In broad brush, DOT proposes something like this:

  1. Reroute a portion of I-84 through the railroad yards north of downtown, across a proposed new bridge, and then reconnect to the existing I-84 in East Hartford.  Create a new I-84/I-91 interchange where the highways intersect north of downtown.  Connect Route 2 to the new bridge, eliminating the Route 2/I-91 interchange in downtown Hartford.
  2. Eliminate multiple on-ramps and off-ramps in downtown Hartford.
  3. Lower and cap portions of I-84 downtown and in the Farmington Avenue-Asylum Street-Broad Street area.
  4. Eliminate most of the highway infrastructure directly east of the Founders and Bulkley Bridges, creating developable acreage.
  5. Lower and cap portions of I-91 through downtown Hartford, providing substantial pedestrian access to the river.
  6. Convert the Bulkley Bridge to carry local traffic between East Hartford and Hartford.
  7. Convert the Founders Bridge to carry local traffic, as well.
  8. Construct a new bridge for local traffic east of the Whitehead Highway.

Wait!  What?!  You’re proposing to drop I-84 to ground level or below, and to cover portions of I-84 to reconnect the north and south ends of the city?  And you’re going to do it in a way that will tend to pull people together and to invite all of Hartford’s residents to share the benefits of city life more equitably?  Fantastic!

And it won’t help just Hartford.  Repurposing existing bridges and building two new bridges will connect East Hartford to Hartford in ways that have not been seen for three quarters of a century.  People will move easily across the river from one downtown to the other, by auto, by bus, by bicycle, by foot.  Through traffic on I-84 will move more easily, bypassing downtown on the new bridge, and East Hartford will reclaim valuable real estate, as well.  Everybody wins.

DOT’s vision isn’t quite as expansive as the proposal sponsored by Hartford 400 that I discussed in previous essays here, but it adopts many of the same concepts.  Both plans would tend to revitalize Hartford and East Hartford by getting through traffic out of the center of the cities and by reconnecting the two cities and their neighborhoods, the way they were before the highways were first built.  Both plans would help integrate life on both sides of the river.  Whether the DOT study was influenced by the Hartford 400 plan or by separate inputs from citizens, DOT has gotten to a good place.

DOT identifies short-term, mid-term, and long-term projects necessary to complete the plan.  Whether it all will happen probably depends on obtaining state and federal funding support and other future events, but it’s a great starting point.

Hartford’s looking up!

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