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PLACE

Coordinate I-84, Rock Cats' Plan — Or Else

By TONI GOLD | PLACE

The Hartford Courant

5:51 PM EDT, June 11, 2014

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Of all the issues raised in the last week about the prospective arrival of the New Britain Rock Cats in Hartford — whether the city can afford it, the chimerical jobs numbers, the robbing of the team from a sister city, the 17 months of secret negotiations, the presumed economic revitalization that it will spark — almost nothing has been said about what may be the make-or-break issue for the project: how to get there.

Do the deal-makers know that long-term rethinking and redesign of I-84, a project called The Hub of Hartford, has been underway for almost 10 years? Essential planning and environmental decisions are being made now; final highway design will begin in 2017 and construction will start in 2021, with completion scheduled for 2025. Everything about the highway could change, including the number and location of exits, its footprint and its elevation.

Almost all of these changes will be an improvement over what we have now. But would they serve a new Rock Cats stadium? The project proponents, who say they are going to realign streets near the stadium, would do well to become part of that planning process immediately.

They would also do well to view the state Department of Transportation's powerful graphic showing the times, location and degree of congestion on I-84 in downtown Hartford; it should give pause to any stadium builder (see the full presentation at http://www.ct-congestion-relief.com/presentations. Check out slides 18 and 19, and don't miss the animation). Just because the stadium is at the intersection of I-84 and I-91 doesn't necessarily mean it will be easy to reach.

The placement and design of I-84 in the 1960s drove a wall through the city. The challenge is to reduce the size of the highway and relieve congestion. "How do you do both?" asks Tom Maziarz, head of DOT's Bureau of Policy and Planning.

He suggests that it is possible to replace the aging I-84 and correct the awful design decisions of the 1950s with the use of better design and "congestion pricing" (time-of-day electronic tolling). He estimated the cost at "three, four, five billion dollars." This immense project is not yet funded, but trust me, it will be, because continually maintaining the current highway with its aging viaduct is even more expensive.

For all of the issues raised about the proposal, the coming of the Rock Cats could be a net benefit to the city. But integration of the stadium planning into the now well-advanced highway planning, and the use and acceptance of congestion pricing and particularly transit to service the stadium are key. (Irony: The New Britain-to-Hartford busway, which now ends on the other side of downtown, could be made to connect directly to the new Hartford stadium, for New Britain fans willing to come.)

Then there is parking. My favorite statistic about Hartford is that since its peak population of 170,000 in 1950, it has lost 50,000 residents and gained 50,000 parking spaces. It's reassuring that no new parking is part of the project.

The final and most enticing transportation issue is the long-discussed Main Street trolley. Mayor Pedro Segarra touted the opportunity for the stadium project to reconnect downtown to the North End. Nothing could make that connection better than a street car, not to mention connecting the South End, the new UConn campus, and Windsor and Wethersfield as well. Now, there's a fan base for the team. And guess what? No parking required — just like a real city.

And where is the state in all this? Hiding under a woodpile, if it's smart. There is no visible state interest in moving the baseball team, but there is a state interest in solving the city's transportation problems. The state could — should — make sure the highway planning is coordinated with the stadium planning.

These transportation issues are the biggest question marks regarding the project. If the team and the stadium and the politicians can meet them, that would be a home run.

If not, then let the Rock Cats go to Springfield.

Toni Gold, of Hartford, is a transportation consultant, a member of the I-84 Public Advisory Committee and on the board of the Connecticut Main Street Center.