Skip to content
CityLab
Economy

The Downtown Highway That Could Drive Hartford’s Comeback

The Connecticut capital has been using zoning and transit reforms to stage a downtown recovery. But there’s one big thing in the way: an aging interstate.
The shadow of downtown towers looms over I-84, the highway that cuts Hartford in two. It's overdue for replacement, but with what?
The shadow of downtown towers looms over I-84, the highway that cuts Hartford in two. It's overdue for replacement, but with what?Anthony Flint/CityLab

HARTFORD, Ct.—If Connecticut’s capital city was looking to adopt a theme song, Elton John’s hit single “I’m Still Standing” would be a fitting anthem.

Battered by population loss and the departure of manufacturing and corporate anchors, Hartford has been on the brink of bankruptcy for several years. In response, the city has taken a sophisticated multi-pronged approach in plotting its post-industrial future: It’s implemented a series of zoning and land-use reforms, encouraged adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and improved mobility with new transit and better facilities for bike riders and pedestrians.

But in an illustration of how a mid-sized legacy city can work smart and still face existential challenges, Hartford finds another monumental task in its way: a crumbling piece of 20th-century infrastructure, a stretch of the Interstate 84 viaduct adjacent to downtown that is well past its expiration date. Completed in 1965, the elevated thoroughfare was part of the national urban-renewal campaign to ram freeways through downtowns, and it did extraordinary damage to Hartford’s urban fabric. The ideas for what to do with it now range from a plain-vanilla rebuild to a tunnel system more elaborate than Boston’s Big Dig.

Optimists might argue that the viaduct dilemma represents an opportunity for city-building on a grand scale. But most are unhappy—even resentful—about being stuck with this problem; it’s like working hard to rehabilitate a sore shoulder, then being told you need an expensive hip replacement.

Ultimately, the choices ahead will hinge on how much the state, and even more so, the federal government, is willing to invest. It will also be a test of the belief that a megaproject will truly save the day—or whether a more frugal and incremental solution would be the wiser path.