Fairfield County’s Transportation Gem — The Merritt Parkway: Cameron on Transportation

Jim Cameron Jim Cameron 8-2-16

Jim Cameron

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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 Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway. I agree with his first characterization, but he’s wrong about the second.

Jim Cameron Jim Cameron 8-2-16

Jim Cameron

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, but it’s not because of its design. It’s because of the 90,000 vehicles that use it everyday. Widening the parkway wouldn’t help, though it’s been suggested in the past.

Designed and built in the 1930s 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, the highway was initially controlled by the Merritt Parkway Commission until 1959 when that body was dissolved and maintenance was assumed by the state Department of Transportation.

Efforts to expand interchanges at Routes 7, 8 and 25 saw community opposition. 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 flyovers 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 DOT Commissioner Emil Frankel, who became its first chairman in 2002.

The conservancy’s missing is “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 the state DOT 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 the state DOT 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 nonprofit 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.


Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for more than 25 years. He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group, sits on the Merritt Parkway Conservancy board  and also serves on the Darien RTM and as program director for Darien TV79. The opinions expressed in this column, republished with permission of Hearst CT Media, are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.

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