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July 03, 2017

"Getting There" Merritt - Queen of the Parkways

Sometimes, not changing is a good thing.  After all, Connecticut is the “land of steady habits”.
Those were my thoughts one day driving through the spring foliage on The Merritt – Queen of the Parkways.  What an amazing road.
A century ago the only way to drive between New York and Boston was on Route 1, the Post Road.  If you think traffic is bad today, imagine that journey!  So in 1936, two thousand men began work on the state’s largest public works project, the $21 million four-lane parkway starting in Greenwich and running to the Housatonic River in Stratford.  (The adjoining Wilbur Cross Parkway didn’t open until years later when the Sikorsky Bridge across the Housatonic was completed.)
The Merritt, named after Stamford resident, Congressman Schuyler Merritt, is best known for its natural beauty, though most of it isn’t native, but planted:  22,000 trees and 40,000 shrubs.  And then there are the amazing bridges, since 1991 protected on the National Register of Historic Places.
Architect George Dunkleberger designed 69 bridges in a variety of architectural styles, from Art Moderne to Deco to Rustic.   No two bridges are exactly alike.  In short order the Merritt was being hailed as “The Queen of Parkways”.
The parkway at first had tolls, a dime (later 35 cents) at each of three barriers, not to pay for the parkway’s upkeep but to finance its extension to Hartford via the Wilbur Cross Parkway, named after Wilbur Lucius Cross who was Governor in the 1930’s.  Tolls were dropped in 1988.
The old toll booths themselves were as unique as the Parkway, constructed of wooden beams and covered in shingles.  One of the original booths is still preserved in Stratford at the Boothe Memorial Park.  There’s also a nearby museum (just off exit 53) highlighting the parkway’s construction and history.
The Merritt’s right of way is a half-mile wide, the vistas more obvious since massive tree clearing after the two storms in 2011 and 2012 when downed trees pretty much closed the highway.
Since its design and opening in 1938 the Merritt Parkway has been off-limits to commercial vehicles and trucks.  But as traffic worsens on I-95, debates rage from time to time about allowing trucks on the Merritt and possibly widening the road.  Either move would probably mean demolition of the Parkway’s historic bridges, so don’t expect such expansion anytime soon.
The best watchdog of the Parkway’s preservation is the Merritt Parkway Conservancy which has fought to keep the road’s unique character.  They have a lot of clout.
In 2007 the group won a court battle against CDOT plans for a massive LA-like cloverleaf interchange where the Merritt meets Route 7.  Their latest battle is against plans for a multi-use trail along the south side of the roadway. Costing an estimated $6.6 million per mile, the Conservancy worries that the trees and foliage that would be clear-cut to allow bike and pedestrian users would despoil the eco-system.

So for now, the best and only way to enjoy The Merritt is from your car.  This is one road where bumper-to-bumper traffic can actually give you time to appreciate the incredible natural and man-made beauty.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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