Trumbull — Will Britnell, principal engineer with the Connecticut Department of Transportation, typically starts meetings on the subject of building a trail along the Merritt Parkway with a quote from Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That pretty much says it all. The idea of building a trail along the Merritt is opinion-generating. Big time.

“Don’t do it,” said Jessie Bennett, an attorney who has come to a meeting about the project — begun as usual with the Voltaire quote — in Trumbull with her husband Ron Canuel and a list of 25 concerns related to the fact that the Canuel-Bennett home abuts the Merritt right where the trail would likely go. “I think it’s going to be an awful project.”

But at this sixth in a series of eight meetings in communities that border or intersect the Merritt, there is as usual, disagreement.

“I support the project. I think it’s a great opportunity to provide some alternative transportation means and recreational value,” said Roger Krahn, who also owns a home adjacent to the Merritt, though on the other side. “The Merritt Parkway is a great resource and this would just enhance it.”

That’s generally how it goes, Britnell said. “The thought of coming through and building a trail through that corridor obviously scares a lot of people.”

On the other hand, he said, “This goes back 15, 20 years. People have been coming to us and asking us to build a trail.”

Actually 20 years, when Linda Hoza started the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance just as the notion of an East Coast Greenway — a trail from Florida to Maine — was being hatched to include the Merritt in its Connecticut portion. (Some point out that when the Merritt was built beginning in 1934, there were plans for horse trails around it.) Hoza got no traction from the DOT.

“We tried to get meetings with the commissioner over the years,” she said from Florida, where she now lives. “It would come down to … ‘How many ways can we say no?’”

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The opening of the Merritt Parkway in the 1930s. (Photo source is the Merritt Parkway Conservancy)

Late in the Rell administration the DOT position softened, especially once it became clear that the idea of widening the Merritt and thereby eliminating trail space, would not happen. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, as mayor of Stamford, had been interested in the trail idea, so it was not surprising when DOT Commissioner James Redeker embraced the idea publicly late last year.

That’s an emphasis on idea. There is no plan — something Britnell has explained repeatedly with varying success during meetings. About the only thing the DOT more or less knows is that the trail would be in the parkway’s northbound side right of way. That’s because the road is situated off to the other side of that right of way, leaving the northbound side with far more space. It would run the full 37.5 miles from the New York border to the Sikorsky Bridge in Stratford. And it would be multi-use.

What’s under way right now is phase one of an 18-month, $1.3 million ($1.1 million from a National Scenic Byways grant and $200,000 from the state) feasibility study. Phase one is these listening sessions.

Phase two will be an actual concept based on suggestions and concerns voiced by those attending the initial sessions. Phase three would be public meetings on the trail concept, possibly as soon as this fall and winter. If, at the end, it’s determined that a trail is worth building, then we’re talking an untold number of years and millions of dollars more.

“They operate at non-warp speed,” said Gordon Joseloff, first selectman of Westport, of the DOT. He did not attend the meeting in his town but has concerns about jurisdiction for the trail where it crosses roads that are under the auspices of town police, potential cost to the town and the environmental impact.

“It’s an interesting idea,” he said. “Trails of this kind next to a highway have worked elsewhere. I think we’d be negligent not to explore it.”

Responses pro and con

While Britnell said the meetings have largely produced evenhanded responses pro and con, and he sees no reason why the process won’t continue to phase two, in truth the list of concerns is long. The first is privacy for homeowners whose properties would border the trail. With that come issues like noise, trash, rest rooms, emergency access, vandalism, trespassing, liability, crime, parking and fencing.

Another major concern is cost for both building and maintaining a trail. Britnell readily admits these are not bills either the state or any of the communities along the Merritt have any interest in footing.

“We’re open to ideas,” he said, noting that public-private partnerships seem likely along with volunteer efforts — even the Boy Scouts — to do the actual trail maintenance. “That’s one of the bigger nuts to crack.

“The state is pretty well wiped out in term of resources to maintain what we have let alone 37 miles of new trail. We’ve talked to all the towns. Frankly nobody has funds to maintain something like this.”

That point was among many hammered home at the Greenwich meeting in March, reportedly the most contentious, with widespread opposition to a trail, especially among those who live adjacent to the parkway. That included former state Sen. William Nickerson.

“This is DOT money which would be much better spent dealing with real DOT pressing needs — MetroNorth parking,” he said, zeroing in on one of a litany of criticisms. “That would be the environmentally friendly thing.”


Traffic jams seem to have begun early on the Merritt, which opened in the 1930’s, a Depression Era project. (Photo source: Merritt Parkway Conservancy)

He and many others, including the DOT, noted a third major concern — how to handle the intersection of the trail with local roads. Britnell said that with the possible exception of a few major roads for which tunnels or small bridges may be constructed, trail users would have to cross several dozen local roads and in some cases detour onto them. That prospect has elicited howls from any number of people concerned about safety for trail users and motor vehicles.

More concerns

Among other issues: environmental concerns around tree removal, landscape alterations, wildlife and wetlands impacts. People brought up construction noise, damage to the road’s remaining 66 unique Depression-era bridges. They questioned whether the trail would really be used for transportation and whether DOT’s idea of linking it to public attractions like malls, museums and schools and tying it into economic development was realistic.

While DOT says at this point it has no position on the project, it’s worth noting their presentation included a slide of an overweight child watching television accompanied by soda and two bags of chips.

And there were concerns that trail users would distract drivers on the parkway, which the DOT said can exceed 80,000 a day in certain spots, causing more slowdowns and even accidents.

“I think the biggest issue, if I was a resident, is privacy,” said Frank Smeriglio, Trumbull’s town engineer, after the meeting. “The biggest issue if I was a state engineer is distraction on the Merritt Parkway. And the biggest issue for a town engineer is the crossings.

“I think having a trail would be a great thing, and I think it’s just maneuvering through the critical parts.”

Jill Smyth, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, founded in 2002 to revitalize the Merritt corridor, said her organization has many questions and concerns, especially about the character of the parkway, which is a national landmark. But for the moment, the conservancy is not supporting or opposing the project until there’s more information.

“At this point we really need to study the design of the trail,” she said.

For Josh Lecar, who took up the trail alliance mantle from Linda Hoza, and has a long roster of supporting organizations, the issue may be less the particulars and more the momentum.

“I’m so excited they’re committed to this project to the extent they are,” he said. “I think there’s a very plausible way forward. But people have to have a lot of patience and a lot of stick-to-it-ive-ness once it’s off the front burner to keep it going.”

The fact that it’s on any burner, for Hoza, elicited only one word: “Amazing.”

“That all of those years weren’t wasted years — that’s very encouraging,” she said. “I want to come bike it and not do it with a walker.”

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Jan Ellen SpiegelEnergy & Environment Reporter

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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