Commentary: The Merritt Parkway is a national treasure

Aug 08, 2019
Press Mmi Merritt Parkway National Treasure M 2019

We forget the meanings of things we see and use everyday. The Merritt Parkway is a national treasure that has never ceased to evolve, and that evolution has had its share of irony.

Governor Wilbur Cross announced the creation of the Merritt Parkway in 1934. The road was intended to take traffic off of hugely congested Route 1, and the proposed divided highway roamed through “The Gold Coast” of Connecticut, to Stratford, to the Housatonic River where the Wilbur Cross Parkway now begins. Named after then U.S. Rep. Congressman Schuyler Merritt, the 37 mile road was initially finished in 1940, extending the Hutchinson River Parkway, and then later further extended by the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Rumors fly about that the 69 concrete bridges were designed by Yale students, but in truth, George L. Dunkelberger was the architect, much of which was paid for by the New Deal’s WPA (“Works Progress Administration”) and PWA (“Public Works Administration”) at a time when the Federal Highway System was not even envisioned — and World War II was yet to force America into being a world power.

Like other WPA projects, the goal was to sop up the Depression Era unemployed, but all American roads were almost always locally designed and funded (tolls were installed in 1940) and the notion of “park” was as important to the proposal as any sense of increased mass transit. After all, the Merritt went through largely failed farmland, way north of even the nascent suburban extension of New York City, and including 22,000 trees and 40,000 plantings.

The Merritt, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, and was declared by the state of Connecticut to be a “State Scenic Highway” and by the national government to be a “National Scenic Byway” courses through some of the most expensive residential real estate in the country, including towns like Greenwich. The road has also been declared to be “endangered” by some as new roads like Route 8 and Interstate 91, which now dump ever increasing waves of traffic onto its four lanes. One element of the connection to Route 8 that had to be remade was rendered into a place called “No Man’s Land” as the “park” disappeared in favor of the “highway.”

The road’s tolls are 30 years gone (but may return), and we are seeing the endgame of a decade’s worth of renovation. The rethinking of the Merritt had begun in 1992, with the Department of Transportation introducing a program for improvement in 1994. After the good work of private consultants such as landscape architect Shavaun Towers and architect Herb Newman, the “shovel ready” status of the Merritt’s rejuvenation made it a prime candidate for federal “stimulus” spending. In February of 2009, President Barack Obama’s “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” allowed for an initial award of $36 million to improve on and off ramps, install sinuous Cor-Ten Steel and wood guide rails, and gentle concrete curbing, which combine with new trees and signage, per drawings of Milone and MacBroom site engineers and landscape architects. One month after Obama took office in 2009, $126,000 worth of signs proclaimed that the final tally of $69 million worth of “stimulus” was real and immediate.

Read the original article here.

(c) The Wilton Bulletin, 2019

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