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Conn. Transit Plan Spares Stately Merritt Parkway

In a bid to unclog Connecticut’s notorious traffic jams, the governor has put forward a plan to rip up and widen two major highways.

Wed September 23, 2015 - Northeast Edition

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) In a bid to unclog Connecticut’s notorious traffic jams, the governor has put forward a plan to rip up and widen two major highways, Interstates 84 and 95.

A third highway, the stately Merritt Parkway, would remain little changed from when it was completed in 1940, a 38-mi. roadway dubbed the “Gateway to New England” that winds through the wealthiest part of the state beneath old-growth trees and stone bridges.

“People do treasure it as it is,” said Jill Smyth, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, an advocacy group.

The powerful conservancy has a history of pushing back against plans that would bring in bulldozers. Its chairman, investor Peter Malkin, is also chairman emeritus of a trust that counts the Empire State Building among its properties, and its honorary board includes Vincent Scully, professor of the history of art in architecture at Yale University, and Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of Yale’s architecture school.

A proposal to widen a section of the parkway was defeated in the 1970s, according to Smyth, and this time around officials said there were no serious discussions about major changes. The conservancy insists that widening the Merritt is not a possibility because its distinctive overpasses would have to be destroyed or significantly altered.

The state has proposed a new interchange with a local road and a recreation trail that would run along the parkway, but those are opposed by the conservancy.

Connecticut Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said officials often work with property owners, advocates and others with stakes in improvement projects, but the support for the Merritt is different in its passion and organization.

“The conservancy has a unique way to focus our attention,” he said.

A $100 billion, 30-year transportation overhaul proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy calls for spending nearly $31 billion on highways. In addition to widening several sections of I-95 and I-84, it would replace a Hartford viaduct and a stacked interchange in Waterbury known as the “mixmaster.”

Malkin said widening the parkway is out of the question.

“As a practical matter that would be impossible,” he said.

Supporters of the recreational trail, which would be closed to motorized vehicles, say it would establish a safe route for joggers, walkers, roller-bladers and others. The conservancy opposes the trail because it would require clear-cutting of trees and construction of bridges over streams.

State transportation officials say the other contentious proposal, to rebuild and reconfigure the interchange with Route 7, will ease traffic congestion and delays at intersections.

A powerful state lawmaker said constituents and others overwhelmingly back state efforts to fix the interchange. Sen. Bob Duff, a Norwalk Democrat and Senate Majority Leader, said the incomplete interchange is an “embarrassment” and altering it is “long overdue.”

The conservancy won a legal challenge in 2006 on a previous effort to rework the interchange. Malkin said if a revised plan were the same or similar to what was halted by the legal action, the conservancy and other nonprofit groups “would again take all available action to protect and preserve” the Merritt.

Still, congestion is as constant a problem for motorists on the Merritt as it is on any other highway in Connecticut. But former Transportation Commissioner Emil Frankel said efforts to preserve the parkway still pay off even if traffic remains clogged at rush hour.

“You see calendars of Connecticut that don’t show 95,” he said. “They show the Merritt.’

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