Drawings of two of Stamford's historic bridges on the Merritt Parkway.

Former Gov. Dannel Malloy used to joke that southwest Connecticut has two highways, “One’s a parking lot and the other’s a museum.”  He was obviously referring to I-95 and the Merritt Parkway.  I agree with his first characterization, but he’s wrong about the second.

Jim Cameron

The Merritt Parkway is not a museum but a transportation gem… a unique, historic highway we should preserve and cherish.

Sure, the traffic on the Merritt can be brutal, not because of its design but because of the sheer volume of traffic: up to 90,000 vehicles a day.  Widening the Parkway wouldn’t help, though it’s been suggested in the past.

Designed and built in the 1930’s as an alternative to The Boston Post Road (before there was an I-95), the Merritt Parkway was the first to incorporate cloverleafs for on and off-ramps.  Its 72 unique bridges, landscape and roadways are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Parkway itself is designated as a National Scenic Byway.

Preserving the look and historic feel of the Parkway over the past 81 years has not been easy.

Initially designed by the Merritt Highway Commission, once opened the parkway was controlled by the Merritt Parkway Commission until 1959 when that body was dissolved and care of the parkway was assumed by the Department of Transportation.

Efforts to expand interchanges at Routes 7, 8 and 25 saw community opposition and in 1973 the “Save the Merritt Association” fought back, at first successfully.  By 1976 a Merritt Parkway Advisory Committee was formed and still meets to this date.

The battle to stop freeway-like fly-overs to Routes 8 and 25 was lost, but efforts to prevent similar construction at the Route 7 interchange continues today, led  by The Merritt Parkway Conservancy.

The Conservancy was created at the suggestion of out-going CDOT Commissioner Emil Frankel who became its first Chairman in 2002. Its mission:  “to protect, preserve and enhance this historic roadway through education, advocacy and partnership ”.  Working alongside groups like the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Southwest Regional Planning Association (now West COG), the Conservancy has been a tireless advocate for preserving the Parkway’s past for the future.

Conservancy Executive Director Wes Haynes drives the length of the Parkway every week looking for problems, then meets with CDOT to address them. Thanks to the Conservancy invasive species of plants are being mitigated, installation of appropriate wooden and steel guardrails is being monitored, and historic bridges (like the Lake Avenue bridge in Greenwich) are being rehabilitated.

Fortunately, there are still some old-timers at CDOT who embrace the Parkway’s unique design and work collaboratively to preserve its look.  But the pressures to turn the Merritt into another interstate persist, which is why the Conservancy needs everyone’s help.

If the Conservancy didn’t exist, who would speak  up to preserve this bucolic, lovely highway so integral to the communities through which it runs?

The Conservancy’s Board of Directors  includes two architects, a forestry expert, preservationists, law enforcement, an artist and representatives from business.  (Full disclosure:  I too am a member of the Board).  As a private non-profit organization entirely supported by members, the Conservancy welcomes new Board members who share its preservation mission and bring new ties to local communities, governments and civic organizations.  If you would like to join in the Conservancy’s work or nominate a candidate for the Board, visit the Conservancy’s website.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

Jim Cameron | Columnist

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.

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6 Comments

  1. The Merritt is a treasure, and one of my favorite things about CT. Other states, and major cities such as Houston, have learned the hard way that widening highways is not the panacea it seems. I hope CT will continue to invest in rebuilding and maintaining its existing transportation structure, as well as realizing how valuable its current public transit system is and make the appropriate investments in trains, buses, etc. Connecticut is a state with so much to offer.

  2. The Merritt is a treasure, and one of my favorite things about CT. Other states, and major cities such as Houston, have learned the hard way that widening highways is not the panacea it seems. I hope CT will continue to invest in rebuilding and maintaining its existing transportation structure, as well as realizing how valuable its current public transit system is and make the appropriate investments in trains, buses, etc. Connecticut is a state with so much to offer.

  3. I grew up next to what was once the Wilbur Cross Parkway. It was essentially the extension of the Merritt from Hartford to Sturbridge MA, and the original exit numbers were a continuation from those on the Merritt. Unfortunately it was built in a different era than the Merritt and did not have the features so unique to the Merritt. Many of the rural intersections were flat (not grade separated) which required one to cross 2 lanes of traffic, stop in the median, and wait for an opportunity to enter the traffic flow. Only the major state routes had grade separated interchanges. Numerous upgrades beginning in the early 1950s eliminated these dangerous intersections. The Wilbur Cross evolved into Route 15, then I-84, then I-86, and then back to I-84. Its current configuration is nothing like what its original construction provided. Progress. Sometimes good, others times bad. Given the current traffic volume it never could have survived in its originally conceived design

  4. There are many fine things worth preserving in Connecticut.
    The Merritt Parkway, in its current form, is not one of them.
    It is dangerous and an impediment to reasonable transportation.
    At a minimum the Merritt needs: shoulders, no trees or plantings in the medians and a lower speed limit with state troopers to enforce it.

  5. I’ve traveled the Merritt all my life first growing up in Fairfield County and then as a commuter and now to visit family. It is a historic gem. No we do not need to bulldoze down all of our trees and expand all of our roads into concrete behemoths for convenience sake and then have the audacity to call that progress. The bridges are unlike any you will see on any thoroughfare anywhere. And yes the Parkway is convenient following an inland route connecting to many more isolate routes versus the alternative to 95’s shoreline route.Leave the Park in Parkway, enjoy the ride and let some of the uniqueness of this State persist. If you hate traveling on 95 and 84 remind yourself of the definition of insanity. CT DOT needs to move away from its historic linear thinking. Thank you to the Conservancy for your work and for protecting as best you can “the Merritt”.

  6. Mr. Cameron’s fondness of the Merritt is good. It’s an architectural gem and a historic road. His admiration conflicts with his advocacy of putting electronic driving tax gantries on it and other Ct. highways. That would be an abomination for the scenic Merritt.

    A friend’s grandmother was involved in designing the Merritt. Here’s his thoughts on the possibility of defacing it with tax gantries:

    “The road divided my grandparents’ farm. The house and out buildings still stand and are visible from the parkway. A very credentialed landscape architect designed the look and route. Great trouble and expense was made to ensure the beauty of the highway because the state built it over local land. It’s a total travesty to ruin its legacy look. It should be protected as a landmark example of highway history.”

    Yes, Mr. Cameron, the Merritt is a Connecticut treasure that “…we should preserve and cherish.” We should not destroy it’s appearance with the driving tax gantries you advocate.

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