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Exploring Options for I-84, a Hartford Engineer Looks for a "Game Changer"

Aaron Gill says a greenway could make getting around in Hartford a lot easier on foot.

The I-84 viaduct in Hartford -- the “futureless freeway” that divided neighborhoods and demolished historic architecture when it was built in the 1960s -- will most likely meet its end in the next decade.

The state is exploring options for reconstruction, looking for feedback from communities in and around Hartford on whether they should replace or renovate the current structure, bring it to ground level, lower it in a trench, or bury the highway in a tunnel. One city resident has a vision for what he thinks would work. 

On a Sunday afternoon in October, within sight of where the viaduct crosses Capitol Avenue, Hartford resident Aaron Gill stood by the stoop of his apartment — a building he and his wife have been renovating on the edge of Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood.

Gill was about to walk the stretch of the I-84 viaduct with West End Civic Association President Bongi Magubane. He wanted to share his vision with her of what that space could become. 

“I’d like to show her the topography of the land -- how we can really connect the north side of the city with the south side of the city. Ideally how we can move the highway underground, and the space of that we’ll reclaim for the city,” Gill said. 

Gill is advocating for the tunnel option, which would replace the massive concrete columns that support the highway today with a greenway, connecting Pope Park along the southward bend of the viaduct to Bushnell Park in the north. 

Six years ago, Gill and his wife Maja moved to downtown Hartford. As car commuters, they’ve gotten a taste of I-84’s consistent congestion. But Gill said that on the weekends, he and Maja put away their cars and walk the city.

A greenway could make getting around by foot easier for them. Gill said this project could be a “game-changer” for Hartford. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
A stretch of I-84 through Hartford, Connecticut.
“If we take the cheapest options in our infrastructure projects, we’re going to continue to develop and grow in a way that makes us car-centric."
Aaron Gill

“You’d be able to create a beautiful pedestrian and bike trail path that would encourage development and users and livers in the area to get away from the vehicle and find other modes of transportation to get to school, to work, and just for everyday things, and encourage the type of development that more and more people are looking for,” Gill said. 

Gill is a civil structural engineer; in his current job he examines structures and roadways across the state. 

"A big part of what's brought me to [favor the tunnel option] is my background, having studied projects like this, having studied the impacts that highways have had on urban areas over the decades," he said. 

Right now, the tunnel option — totaling more than twice the next costliest option — could amount to more than $12 billion. And it would involve a complicated building process, with the underground Park River conduit presenting another obstacle to construction. But Gill said that he and many of his neighbors think the results would be worth the extra money — and the hassle of what could be many  years of construction. 

“If we’re penny-wise and pound foolish, if we take the cheapest options in our infrastructure projects, we’re going to continue to develop and grow in a way that makes us car-centric,” he said. 

To Gill, the other options are not as desirable. 

“If we bring the highway down to grade, and further divide the neighborhoods and cities, bring that air pollution and noise pollution back into the city, you’re just going to further exacerbate the issue that’s already been caused for 60 years,” he said.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
West End Civic Association President Bongi Magubane stands in front of Aaron Gill's apartment building on Capitol Ave. before going out to survey the land around the viaduct.

Standing on Gill’s stoop, Magubane pointed to the viaduct, which cuts between Gill's neighborhood and her own  in the West End. 

“That’s not a beautiful scene,” she said. She then gestured at the Capitol building. “Look at that, look how great that is.”

Magubane wants to see the two places connected. “This project could dramatically change the fate and future of Hartford,” she said. 

Ryan Caron King joined Connecticut Public in 2015 as a reporter and video journalist. He was also one of eight reporters on the New England News Collaborative’s launch team, covering regional issues such as immigration, the environment, transportation, and the opioid epidemic.

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