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.
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.