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Hartford's transportation plans clash with traditional model
Harrison Potter | Hartford Business Journal

Marta Station in Atlanta, GA.

At some point in the next 10 years, the vision for how people will move in, out, and around Hartford will clash with reality.

 

The result will be more people walking, more public transit options, and a transportation infrastructure that still must accommodate large volumes of cars. Balancing all those needs and desires will be one of the greatest challenges the Capital City wrestles with over the next decade, experts say.

 

"At the end of the day, Hartford is going to be the central business district," said Tim Sullivan, director of waterfront, brownfield, and transit-oriented development for the Department of Economic and Community Development. "Young, talented people who are critical drivers of economic growth want walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented places to live."

 

This vision for Hartford — and, largely, Connecticut — seeks to create a city where people can move around freely without cars, either walking or biking short distances while fully developed transit networks can take them longer distances inside the city and beyond. Driving a car, particularly without passengers, would be discouraged as parking, highway congestion, and the rising price of fuel makes it less economical.

 

This vision, though, clashes with an American culture where the automobile still is the lifeblood of mobility and remains a status symbol for the majority of the population, said Donald Poland, senior vice president of planning at Goman + York Property Advisors in East Hartford. That is particularly true in Hartford, which has long been a commuter city.

 

Hartford should make some efforts to become a more desirable place to live for the younger generation, but the proper balance must be struck with today's car-centric lifestyle, Poland said. If the city starts putting too many restrictions on its car infrastructure — by reducing the number of lanes or limiting turns — that could have a negative impact.

 

"Individual mobility through the automobile is the preferred mode of transportation in all of the world's richest countries, and the U.S. is no exception," Poland said. "[Transportation development] is about finding a balance that strikes a greater mobility for everybody."

 

Although older generations still rely on their cars, studies from groups like the American Public Transportation Association that look at metropolitan areas including Boston and San Francisco, where the cost of owning a car is significantly higher than Hartford, have found both Generation X and Millennials are driving less, getting fewer licenses, and using more public transportation. As a result, other cities too are pushing to create more walkable, bike-friendly environments, a national trend that Hartford is basing many of its transportation plans and strategies on.

 

Two near-time transportation projects destined to have a major impact on Hartford in 10 years are the iQuilt initiative, which aims to make the city more walkable, and the CTfastrak busway designed to speed up and enhance the transit network west of Hartford. Over the longer term, the reconstruction of the I-84 viaduct in downtown Hartford and the development of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed rail line will change the development landscape in Hartford and across the state.

 

The iQuilt project is a vision or wish list of projects/ideas for Hartford designed to make the city more walkable, starting downtown and branching out to outlying neighborhoods.

 

Some of iQuilt's ideas are becoming reality, the most recent being the narrowing of Jewel Street along the northeastern edge of Bushnell Park, which started in July. By thinning six lanes of driving and parking down, the city hopes to make access to Bushnell Park more open and create spaces on sidewalks for cafes and other pedestrian amenities.

 

Hartford received a $10 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to pay for the Jewel Street project.

 

Despite concerns over the narrowing of a roadway that is key for downtown commuters to get to I-91 via Pulaski Circle, Poland said the Jewel Street project would strike a good balance between making the city more walkable while not negatively impacting cars.

 

"They can pull that off because that road just doesn't have the volume to cause congestion," Poland said.

 

Other iQuilt road diets throughout the city don't seem as primed for success, Poland said, mostly because some high-volume thoroughfares like Main Street would get too congested. Meantime, the realignment of Gold Street, which aims to extend green space near Bushnell Park, has been delayed after nearby property owners complained about it.

 

Much of the iQuilt plan is meant to prepare the city for larger volumes of public transit. The first step in that direction will be the March opening of CTfastrak, which is a dedicated roadway to service all the bus lines between Hartford and New Britain.

To help the express buses get turned around, iQuilt at one point proposed opening up State House Square to bus only traffic, but the city declined to pursue that option. Instead, buses largely will use Pearl and Main streets, and Capitol Avenue.

 

"We want to get the service to the largest generators of traffic," said Michael Sanders, public transit administrator for the state Department of Transportation. "The routing patterns may get changed as the demand changes."

 

The key with CTfastrak is that buses can adjust their routes to meet shifting population and workforce demands, particularly where changes are likely to occur over the next decade such as in downtown Hartford, the developments around the UConn Health Center in Farmington, or even Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.

 

"This has the potential to become a real core, main line asset to the region," Sanders said. "Nothing serves all markets perfectly, not even highways."

 

While CTfastrak will be the immediate change to Hartford's transit roadmap, the real game-changer for the entire region will be the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line, Sullivan said. That will significantly alter mobility options in Connecticut and to hubs like Boston and New York City.

 

"Employers can then draw from a broader workforce," Sullivan said. "It is a completely different development opportunity for, say, Meriden because it changes the development frameworks where people can easily move in and out of Hartford for these cities and towns that are further away."

 

The upgrades to the rail line are expected to be completed in either late 2016 or early 2017, with development proposals for the various stops along the route to come online thereafter. The upgrades include strengthening the rails and repairing the track to handle high-speed trains, along with making sure trains have the proper clearance.

 

A sticking point for all these new public transit options is whether Hartford residents and commuters will start foregoing their cars in favor of buses and rail, even though motor vehicles probably still will be the faster and more flexible option, Poland said.

 

"The automobile is the lifeblood of mobility," Poland said.

 

Hartford's transportation future does include redevelopment projects aimed at catering to people with cars, with the biggest being the redesign of I-84 between Flatbush Avenue and I-91. The vision is to find the most efficient way of getting the 175,000 daily vehicles through the busiest stretch of highway in Connecticut while decreasing the interstate's impact on the development landscape.

 

The state Department of Transportation still is gathering ideas and engaging the community on the project, and construction isn't scheduled to begin until 2019 at the earliest. However, proposals include changing the elevation of the highway so an additional eight city blocks would be available for development.

 

"The development potential of adding those blocks in enormous," Sanders said.

 

Because of the many years it takes to turn proposals like these into reality, and all the factors that could impact their viability — federal funding problems, population shifts, technological developments — the ability to achieve these visions while balancing current transportation needs will be difficult, Poland said.

 

"We can never know the future, so we have to be cautious," Poland said.