"Why, with a metro population of over one million, is there no beltway around downtown Hartford?" - Scott Oglesby, webmaster of "Connecticut Roads"
THE HARTFORD BELTWAY THAT WASN'T: When it was first proposed by the Connecticut Highway Department, I-291 was to play an integral role in directing traffic between I-84 and I-91, and in preventing this traffic from entering downtown Hartford. Surprisingly, I-291 was not included in either the 1944 or 1953 statewide freeway plan. It was only included in the statewide plan in 1957, when the BPR allocated mileage for the freeway, making it eligible for 90-percent Federal funding.
The I-291 and I-491 designations for the Greater Hartford beltway first appeared in 1958. The I-291 section of the beltway incorporated a short section of CT 71 Expressway that the state proposed in the mid-1950's. Public hearings for the route began in 1959. At the time, completion of the I-291 section of the beltway was scheduled for 1970.
DESCRIPTIONS OF THE UNBUILT SECTIONS: The routes for the southwest and northwest sections of I-291 were planned as follows:
SOUTHWEST QUADRANT: I-291 was to begin in at I-91 (proposed EXIT 23A) in Rocky Hill. Exposed rock cuts, dirt ramps, and until recently, unused flyover ramps (over I-91) and lightposts were evidence of the future I-291. The expressway was to continue west into Newington, with interchanges at US 5-CT 15 (Berlin Turnpike) and CT 174 (New Britain Avenue). Continuing into New Britain, a short connector (the Taras Shevchenko Expressway, now part of CT 9) was to connect to the CT 72 Expressway. From New Britain north to West Hartford, I-291 was to continue along the original right-of-way for the CT 71 Expressway (and now serves as the route for the CT 9 Expressway). A four-level stack interchange was constructed with I-84 in the late 1960's. This interchange was unused until September 1992, when the final section of the CT 9 Expressway opened to traffic.
NORTHWEST QUADRANT: North of I-84, I-291 was to traverse the Hartford reservoir system. After interchanges with CT 4 (Farmington Avenue) and US 44 (Albany Avenue) in West Hartford, I-291 was to have an interchange with a proposed US 44 Expressway in Bloomfield. Veering east toward I-91 in Windsor, I-291 was to have an interchange with the proposed CT 189 Expressway in Bloomfield. An alternate routing for the northwest quadrant had I-291 veer northwest toward CT 10 in Avon before returning to the northeast past US 44.
The 26.9-mile-long I-291 beltway from I-91 in Rocky Hill to I-84 in Manchester was estimated to cost $201.7 million. Construction of I-291 would have displaced 353 homes and 54 businesses. Originally designed to be eight lanes throughout its entire length, I-291 was designed for 80,000 vehicles per day (AADT).
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the route faced significant opposition from the towns of Wethersfield, West Hartford, Avon, Farmington, Bloomfield, Windsor and Manchester. Nevertheless, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) let out the first construction contracts on the southwest quadrant of I-291 when design work was completed. However, before work could begin, I-291 several major setbacks.
In 1972, the state shelved the northwest quadrant of I-291 from I-84 in Farmington to I-91 in Windsor. Federal and state officials were unable to come to a compromise plan that provide an eight-lane freeway and avoid several reservoirs in the area.
One year later, a lawsuit against ConnDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) stopped work on the southwest quadrant of I-291, even as clearing and grading work began. The lawsuit charged that the environmental impact statement (which was approved in 1972) did not address alternative routes such as the CT 9 and CT 72 expressways.
In 1974, a court injunction indefinitely stopped all construction on I-291. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected the environmental impact study previously submitted by ConnDOT because it understated the potential negative impacts from I-291 on the Hartford reservoir system. The EPA also said that mass transit alternatives were not adequately explored. ConnDOT defended its I-291 proposal, contending that mass transit was not viable for this circumferential route.
However, given the anti-highway sentiment of the 1970's, the battle for the western quadrants of I-291 already had been lost. In 1979, ConnDOT canceled this 21-mile-long section of I-291.
The cancellations of I-291, I-484 and I-491 prompted ConnDOT to conduct the Greater Hartford Study in 1980. The study made a number of recommendations, including adding the missing ramps at the I-84 / I-91 interchange, constructing HOV lanes on I-84 and I-91, and enhancing mass transit. It also called for the completion of the CT 9 Expressway to replace the southwest quadrant of I-291 that had been canceled.
THE TRI-TOWN CONNECTOR: In the late 1980s, ConnDOT officials pushed for a 2.0-mile-long, four-lane arterial highway that was to connect I-91 (proposed EXIT 23A) in Rocky Hill with CT 176 (Main Street) in Newington. The Tri-Town Connector, a median-divided surface arterial with a design speed of 45 MPH, was to have signalized intersections with CT 3 (Maple Street), US 5-CT 15 (Berlin Turnpike) and CT 176. It was to utilize the unused ramps between I-91 and the unbuilt I-291.
The Tri-Town Connector, estimated to cost $27 million, was scheduled to open by 1990. Despite numerous design concessions, there remained significant opposition to the arterial along the I-291 right-of-way. In heated public discussions held during the spring of 1987, residents feared a revival of the I-291 beltway proposal. Subsequently, ConnDOT dropped plans for the connector.
To this day, some officials still favor keeping the right-of-way available for future road use. In 1999, officials in Wethersfield proposed an east-west arterial highway on the former I-291 right-of-way to relieve traffic on nearby CT 175 and CT 287.