Highway Problems?: A Brief History of The I-84 Project

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Downtown Hartford from above

Written by: James Barrett (History, IDP, Class of 2017)

It is a difficult task to imagine a world without highways. Every city, big and small, has multiple routes in and out. This is nothing new of course, most people have experience with highways whether they commute everyday to go to work or just drive on them once or twice a year. But it is also possible to view highways as a recent development, especially in the United States. The 1939 New York World’s Fair had a great deal to do with the development of the highways. General Motors, in a mission to sell more cars, presented their “Futurama” exhibit which depicted “modernized expressways speeding traffic through great skyscraper cities at one hundred miles per hour.” Looking back, it is easy to see how this display impressed attendees of the World’s Fair. With that said however, it is also easy to see that the relationship between highways, cars, and cities did not exactly pan out the way General Motors thought it would.

An overhead view of Hartford’s downtown might look similar to GM’s Futurama exhibit. Interstates 84 and 91, with their respective on and off ramps force cars to drive by buildings in very close proximity. This creates a downtown that may have been idealistic in the eyes of General Motors, but in reality creates a multitude of problems, the least of which is heavy traffic. Downtown Hartford has been developing recently into a vibrant social center. The areas of Front Street and Arch Street have had recent success with businesses like Bear’s BBQ, Infinity Hall, and the Spotlight Movie Theatre. With the incoming Uconn campus slated to open later in 2017, the area is likely to see an increase in foot traffic. This is great news for the businesses already there, but unfortunately this area as a whole is stymied because of the downtown Hartford setup. A major part of this is the highways which rip right alongside the downtown area.

Image of Front Street (CTconventions.com)

Image of Front Street (CTconventions.com)

While there is certainly no simple way to address the problems both I-84 and I-91 create, the Hartford I-84 Project works to both diagnose and create solutions to these problems. In the coming years there may be a problem with downtown space, in that there may be desire to expand, but no room to expand into. There could however be a solution. Many, in the northeast are familiar with Boston’s Big Dig and in a much longer paper, I argue that Hartford would benefit from its own dig. Burying I-84 and creating access through a tunnel would be costly and time consuming, but would ultimately generate more taxable space for Hartford.

General Motors Futurama Exhibit may have looked like the future of automobile transportation in 1939, but in reality, freeways looping around skyscrapers, have created nothing by problems for the city of Hartford.[2] There also may be a future scenario where Hartford’s downtown needs to expand, but may be unable to do so. It is not too early to begin thinking about solutions to these upcoming problems. Luckily, the Hartford I-84 Project is here to help.

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