A recently-approved “next level” Department of Transportation study of traffic on Interstate 95 is a reminder that we haven’t internalized an important lesson from Connecticut’s history —expanding roads and highways fails to deliver the promised congestion relief. Only reforming our zoning to allow transit-oriented communities and shifting towards walking, biking and transit will work.
According to State Department of Transportation spokesperson Kafi Rouse, a new $4 million study could “lead to relief for commuters heading toward New Haven and the Valley on Interstate 95.” Indeed, the DOT feels that “safety improvements” (read: more construction) could provide congestion relief that “would be felt throughout a large part of the I-95 west corridor.” Similar efforts are in the works for the Merritt Parkway and Interstate 84. Unfortunately, Fairfield County has been in search of congestion relief since the inception of its highway system, and it has never delivered.
The Hartford Courant’s historical archives reveal just how ineffective highway construction has been at relieving congestion. The widespread adoption of the automobile in the 1920s produced almost immediate gridlock in Fairfield County, and officials were quick to identify limited-access roads as the solution. On November 2, 1933 the Hartford Courant published an article titled “To Ask Bids for Merritt Road Shortly: Cross Announces Highways in Fairfield County soon will be Reality —Project Explained.” The article detailed Gov. Wilbur Cross’ push to construct a new parkway for “traffic relief in Fairfield County.” The Merritt Parkway opened in 1939, intending to relieve unbearable traffic on Boston Post Road (Route 1).
Spoiler-alert: it didn’t work. Only two years after the Merritt opened, Fairfield County was once again debating what to do about traffic congestion —this time on both Post Road and the Merritt Parkway. As early as 1941 the Connecticut General Assembly authorized the planning and construction of an all-vehicle (i.e. commercial and private vehicles) highway south of the Merritt. In a Sept. 16, 1943 article in The Hartford Courant titled “New Highway Only Solution Cox Asserts,” State Highway Commissioner William J. Cox declared that an “all vehicle highway across Fairfield County” offered the “only solution to an unbearable postwar traffic problem.” Eight years later, the new State Highway Commissioner Dr. G Albert Hill reiterated that a “desperate situation there [Fairfield County] demands expenditure of between $100 and $130 million for a highway to relieve congestion on U.S. Route 1.” Ultimately, despite vociferous opposition among coastal towns and cities, the Connecticut Turnpike (better known today as I-95) opened to traffic on Jan. 2,1958.
Just as the Merritt Parkway failed to relieve congestion in Fairfield County, so too did the Connecticut Turnpike. In 1977 —less than two decades after its construction— Tom Condon wrote an article in the Courant titled “Jammed Turnpike Triggering Feud,” describing the Turnpike as a “parking lot” and the site of “accidents, delays, increased air pollution, law enforcement problems and frazzled nerves.” These words could describe I-95 and the Merritt today.
Yet despite these historical failures, here we are again, with transportation officials promising us that new highway improvements will finally solve Fairfield County’s congestion problem. Consider me highly skeptical. Induced demand— the idea that adding more highway lanes or making driving easier actually increases congestion —is well-studied and documented at this point. And in a dense corridor like Fairfield County, cars are a geometry (and climate and pollution and city-destroying) problem, and the only way to truly reduce congestion is to replace those car trips with walking, biking and transit. This means pairing transportation reform with better land use.
Last year, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law requiring communities serviced by the MBTA to allow more housing. A similar idea is a no-brainer for Connecticut. Desegregate Connecticut’s Transit-Oriented Communities plan proposes that “towns zone to allow, as of right, 15 homes per acre within a 10-minute walk of our transit stations.” They add that these developments “could be live-work units, mixed-use developments, a mix of single-family and multi-family housing, or simply multifamily housing,” with 10% set aside as affordable. This common-sense proposal is an absolute priority for the next legislative session.
Fairfield County can continue to be the economic engine of a growing, prosperous, opportunity-rich Connecticut, but only if it ends its nearly century-long delusion that more roads and highways will relieve congestion. Instead, we need to do what we used to do so well —construct mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods serviced by transit, places where children bike to school and people walk to the store instead of driving. A better world —where families spend less time in the car and more time together— really is possible.
Thomas Broderick lives in Trumbull.