‘Time to think big’: Larson proposes tunnels for I-84, I-91

When the Interstate Highway System came to Connecticut, the plan was to follow a line directly from Hartford's Flatbush Avenue area toward East Hartford, skirting the densest urban areas of the city. To engineers, that made the most sense. However politics came into play back in the mid-1950s, and at the time cities such as Hartford held sway in everything the state did. The outcome was the highways of today, snaking Interstate 84 directly through the center of Downtown Hartford, a hose of traffic aimed straight into the city center.

So explains Congressman and former East Hartford High School history teacher John B. Larson who has been advocating a radical notion to dig tunnels for the highway beneath the city and the Connecticut River as a way to rectify a miscalculation made over 60 years ago. The town’s native son held court Saturday, January 28 at the Raymond Library to explain his thinking and why now is the time to envision a better highway system that helps both Hartford and East Hartford.

Inspired by a conversation between his younger brother, State Sen. Tim Larson, and MDC executive and former East Hartford engineer Chuck Sheehan, who is now the executive director of the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) overseeing a major tunneling project beneath Hartford, “why not?” asks Congressman Larson, “build a tunnel” from Flatbush Avenue in the west end of Hartford to Roberts Street in East Hartford? As Sheehan sketched it out, a second tunnel would carry Interstate 91 north and south with the two major highways intersecting in an exchange buried beneath Colt Park in Hartford.

The MDC is digging a 5-mile, 26-foot-diameter cavity to absorb the city's storm water runoff until it can be treated. The MDC's $3 billion "Clean Water" project is designed to seperate storm water from the combined sewer system in Hartford. Congressman Larson notes that the tunnels for the highway would have to be much bigger in diameter, and with air scrubbers and equipped to handle emergencies, but would be shorter - 3 and 3-and-a-half miles in length as compared to the MDC tunnels. They would still be costly but as tunneling technology has improved, the idea could be more realistic and feasible.

Even so, the tunnels beneath the river and the underground traffic exchange are just part of the congressman’s plan. The other is using the “Jurassic basalt” excavated by the tunneling to shore up the circa-1938 earthen levee system protecting Hartford and East Hartford. The Army Corps of Engineers has ordered the town and city to repair and better maintain the flood protection systems, which are seeping. In fact, last year East Hartford public works engineers discovered water is penetrating the earthen levee along Cherry Street, detected after the town installed pieziometers last year.

In November East Hartford voters approved spending another $8.1 million for repairs to the levees which hold back the spring freshets of the Connecticut River from innundating $1.2 billion in commercial and residential property in the town's North and South Meadows. Metal and plastic sheets have been driven through the levees, acres of trees cut, wildlife burrows cleared, toe drains inspected and flood gates replaced - all in response to being put on notice by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of flood damage in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. East Hartford has dug deep, with taxpayers spending close to $27 million to upgrade the levees and water pumping stations - with more work to do. The latest item was the Army Corps change in the classification of the levees as dam structures, meaning the town now has to complete an innundation and hydrological analysis and come up with an emergency response plan. And that could happen as the levees were purposely built 3 feet lower on the East Hartford side than the Hartford side of the river.
The tunnel project would be the biggest infrasturcture project ever in Connecticut, as much as 5 or 10 times costlier than the recently-complteted Q Bridge in New Haven, a $2 billion project which carries Interstate 95 over the Quinnipiac River. "It's Hartford's time for a project like this," said Larson. Tunneling beneath such a congested urban traffic bottleneck "solves a multitude of needs" and upgrades highway capacity on a major route halfway between Boston and New York.

Few of the more than 140,000 cars and trucks that cross the Connecticut River on I-84 likely appreciate the grandeur of the engineering structure beneath them as they speed - or sit in traffic as there are only two travel lanes in each direction - between the Congressman's East Hartford hometown and Hartford. Replacing a 974-foot covered wooden bridge which burned down in 1895, the pink granite Hartford Bridge opened in 1908 as "an ornament to the city which should endure forever." Later named after Hartford insurance executive, mayor and U.S. Senator Morgan Bulkeley after his death in 1922, the magnificent pink granite structure is the oldest major highway bridge in the interstate highway system and was built to last 500 years. However it was designed as a street-level local boulevard – not as the major highway bridge it is today.

One need not look very far in the Hartford area to find examples of highway bridges far less able to handle that same daily volume of traffic. Just to the west, I-84 cuts through Hartford's Downtown and Asylum Hill neighborhoods on an elevated viaduct system of steel supports. Designed in the late 1950s and already outmoded by the time it opened in 1965, the viaduct cuts a swath through the city, dividing neighborhoods. It does a poor job of handling 175,000 cars per day, and is overdue for a replacement. Replacing that 2.3-mile section of highway with a semi-subsurface design now favored over a tunnel will include relocating a buried river and existing railroad tracks, and is estimated to be anywhere from $4 to $8 billion. Congressman Larson, and the business leaders in and around Hartford he has met with, is not against the project noting much time and effort has been expended toward the project - but his contention is simple: Replacing the existing I-84 viaduct through Hartford will not solve any of the existing traffic congestion, and overlooks the larger infrastructure shortcomings with the highway system on both sides of the Connecticut river.

In addition the interstate will either be completely closed for two years using the state DOT's innovative ‘rapid construction’ technique, or face ongoing construction for up to 6 years as I-84 is rebuilt.

In either scenario, federal transportation funding would pick up 80 to 85 percent of the cost - even though Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said picking up the difference would be a financial stretch for the state.

One additional reason why supporters favor the tunnel proposal is the potential benefits. In addition to solving the long-term traffic problem, and avoiding the highway reconstruction and construction delays replacing the overground highways would allow Hartford to reconnect its neighborhoods, link up with existing work donw to reconnect the city to the Riverfront, and free up the highway areas for development. On the East Hartford side of the river, when I-84 came through town the entire South Meadows neighborhood was razed to accmodate a 'mixmaster' of highway ramps. Removing those ramps would create an area roughly the same size as Downtown Hartford, potentially resulting in developable commercial sites, generating jobs and economic benefit.

“The beauty of digging a tunnel is you won’t inconvenience anyone while you do it,” said State Sen. Tim Larson. “And the jobs it will create, on both sides of the river, will be significant.” Tolls at the ends of the tunnel would be applied to pay off construction bonds. Senator Larson observed 60 percent of highway traffic is "pass-through" in Hartford with a tunnel toll system capturing that. Local drivers could access the existing bridges and avoid the toll if they wished.

“I’m in 110 percent,” said Hartford State Sen. John Fonfara. “Not only as a lifelong resident, but as a visitor to East Hartford I did not realized until today the impact that highway has on East Hartford. This project, on its merits, sells itself.”

Congressman Larson said he has met with leaders of many major Hartford corporations about the tunnel plan, and said the concept received universal support. Traffic is not just an inconvienence, it hurts business. divides the city of Hartford, it detracts from the quality of life in the area by cutting people off from the Connecticut River. DOT conceptual drawings given to the Congressman showed tree-lined streets linking the city to the waterfront “making it livable, bike-able, walk-able and multi-modal” said Larson.

Congressman Larson’s idea seemed to be well received by the crowd gathered at the library. Concerns were expressed about the vibrationa nd damage from tunneling. "In Seattle Big Bertha has run into sinkholes and shaking has been a problem beneath some neighborhoods," said Pricille Yamamoto of East Hartford. Others questioned on who would benefit acres freed up for development. Others noted the DOT has already made a major investment planning for the I-84 viaduct replacement.

“What you will end up with is a 50-year-old plan, not a solution,” said Congressman Larson. “This, in our view, helps solve a problem.” Even so, Larson admitted it is just a concept and is subject to public input and engineering review. “This is what we, and the DOT, put together to illustrate the potential.”

Larson noted the tunnel concept, like the I-84 viaduct replacement, both have significant pricetags. But the Congressman was advocating for national infrastructure projects in July, even before the major changes which are now accompanying the administration of President Donald J. Trump in Washington, D.C. Congressman Larson said that the nation's deteriorating infrastructure is "calling out for solutions" not just with the highway system but for railroads, airports, ports and other major facilities. Larson sees improving infrastructure as an area of common ground in Congress and the White House. "We should be ready with a plan in hand as we go forward."