Origins of the Merritt Parkway
The Parkway is named for Congressman Schuyler Merritt, who long represented the southwestern part of Connecticut in the U.S. Congress and who championed the construction of a parkway to parallel U.S. Route 1. Said Merritt at the Merritt Parkway groundbreaking ceremony in July, 1934:
"This great highway is not being constructed primarily for rapid transit but for pleasant transit. This county [Fairfield County] is fortunate in having such beautiful backcountry and it is our great duty to see that these beauties are preserved."
His words still resonate today.
Purpose of the Merritt Parkway
The primary purpose of the Merritt Parkway was to relieve traffic congestion in southwestern Connecticut, especially on U.S. Route 1, the Boston Post Road, which had become intolerably congested with motor vehicles following their post World War I proliferation. One of the oldest roads in the country, the Post Road was one of the most important traffic arteries between Boston and New York; it was also the most heavily traveled highway in Connecticut, carrying both commercial and passenger traffic. Connecting the industrial centers of New England with the port of New York, the Post Road was the primary route by which raw materials entered New England and finished products left it. Though a critical commercial corridor, the Post Road was also a major tourist route. As the "Gateway to New England" the Post Road carried a steady stream of passenger cars and buses destined for the resort communities that lined the coast in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.
A Traffic Artery
By the mid 1920s, there were too many cars and trucks for the road's two lanes and serious traffic accidents were on the rise. The Post Road was quickly reaching its maximum traffic density and was in critical need of added capacity. Stop lights, installed to regulate the flow of traffic, only added to the congestion. In addition, the road surface was rapidly deteriorating because of constant use heavy trucks and buses. From 1923 to 1931 the Connecticut Highway Department undertook a series of improvement projects designed to modernize the Post Road and increase its efficiency. Portions of the road between the New York state line and New Haven were widened to four lanes, straightened, repaved, and even rerouted around congested town centers in a few places.3 Despite these efforts, the Post Road remained, according to a highway department engineer, "an amazing succession of traffic lights," which resulted in "frazzled nerves" and complete exhaustion. As the New York Times described it, these driving conditions made the Post Road of the 1920s an "historic thoroughfare [that had] long ago lost its romantic interest."
In 1926, even as modernization projects were underway, the state highway department began preliminary studies for a new route to parallel the Post Road. Highway Commissioner John A. Macdonald first proposed such a parallel route in a 1923 address to the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce. He advanced the idea of an express "superhighway" for passenger cars starting at the state line in Greenwich and continuing to New Haven. Fifty miles long, 36' wide, 9" thick, with an 80' right-of-way, the route would be built inland from the Post Road, far from the populous centers of the coastal towns. For Macdonald, constructing a new parallel route and widening the Post Road were two solutions to the same problem because "neither, of itself, would satisfy the present and future traffic requirements."
Though it was Macdonald's parallel route that eventually became the Merritt Parkway, his was not the first such proposal. As early as 1907, the Connecticut Automobile Parkway Corporation received a charter to build and operate an "automobile boulevard1t between New York and Boston. Though never realized, the boulevard was to parallel the Post Road through Fairfield and New Haven counties with grade separations at intersections with all public highways and railroad tracks.3
Macdonald derived his inland parallel route from a proposal by his predecessor at the highway department, Commissioner Charles S. Bennett. Prior to 1923, Bennett recommended that a shoreline truck route be built parallel to the Post Road, thus leaving the old route free for passenger traffic only. After Macdonald took office he continued to study the truck route, but eventually abandoned it for two reasons. First, he did not believe that industries already established along the Post Road would relocate to a new route and, second, the cost of the right-of-way in the long-settled shoreline area would have been prohibitive. Despite Macdonald's rejection of a state-sponsored truck route, some individual Fairfield County communities continued to investigate truck routes well into the 1930s, In 1934, for example, Norwalk's City Planning Commission prepared sketches for a truck highway parallel to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad that was intended to pull traffic directly from the Post Road. Significantly, given the Merritt's subsequent development, Norwalk's truck highway was separated from residential development with a 100' buffer strip intended to increase property values along the existing railroad right-of-way.
As Connecticut's traffic problems became more acute and improvements to the Post Road proved inadequate, the parallel route gained support from local politicians, civic leaders, and regional planners, alike. This regional support is best understood in light of the geographic origin of traffic in southwestern Connecticut, namely Fairfield County. Connecticut had long realized that because of geographic proximity its road and highway system was intertwined with that of New York State. Traffic surveys of the late 1920s showed that the majority of cars on the Post Road did not originate in Connecticut, but rather from "territory west of the Hudson River, from metropolitan New York, and from the South." Commissioner Macdonald went so far as to state that the parallel route was "being forced upon" Connecticut by traffic from New York.
The Regional Plan Association of New York understood this relationship and promoted a parallel route even before Macdonald did. The regional plan, formulated in 1921, was designed to "treat as one unit in planning those communities which are industrially and socially interdependent." Located within a 100-mile radius of New York City, Fairfield County was included in the plan as part of the New York metropolitan region along with Westchester County and western Long Island. The major goal of the Regional Plan was to provide a system of new railroads, highways, rapid transit, and parkways. It advocated new highways and parkways that separated the car and truck traffic of the old major roads and favored new routes, like Macdonald's parallel route, built to "divert traffic from or around populous centers" with grade separation of local streets. Tile initial regional plan suggested a parallel truck route in its scheme for regional trunk-line highways; a 1928 revision included a parallel passenger-car route in its plan for a regional highway system, showing the new route as a northwest continuation of Westchester County's Hutchinson River Parkway.
Fairfield County's inclusion within the New York metropolitan region was spurred on by the construction of Long Island and Westchester County parkways in the 1 920s: Northern and Southern State and Wantagh in the former, and Bronx River, Sawmill River, Hutchinson River, and Cross-County in the latter. After their completion, commercial, commuter, and recreational travel between Connecticut and New York greatly increased. Traffic studies showed that the Cross County and Hutchinson River parkways, in particular, were the two most important thoroughfares connecting Connecticut and New York. With divided lanes and grade separations, these parkways enabled motorists from New York City and Westchester to travel quickly and efficiently to Connecticut. Unfortunately, upon reaching the Connecticut border, motorists were forced onto local roads. Unless drivers were familiar with the back roads, the only possible route through Connecticut was the congested and dangerous Post Road. The proposed parallel road offered a dramatic alternative by extending the chain of express routes, thus enabling safe and speedy travel from New York City to New England. By the late 1920s the parallel route had gained widespread public support because it promised to relieve Fairfield County's traffic congestion with a new highway designed to provide "faster passage more safely." With the onset of the Depression however, the parallel route gained an equal amount of support because its construction promised Fairfield County unemployment relief and economic recovery.
A Public Work
During the Depression, road construction projects ranked high among public works because of the job opportunities they provided for large numbers of both unemployed and unskilled workers.
In Connecticut, as early as 1930, Highway Commissioner Macdonald realized the potential of road construction for unemployment relief. According to department press releases, he ordered that all scheduled highway work be "moved forward as rapidly as the department could formulate plans and specs for construction," with the specific intention of "aiding the jobless."
If regular highway department construction and repair projects provided tangible unemployment relief; a road of the Merritt's scale was guaranteed to provide benefits many times greater. In 1935 the highway department estimated that the construction of the Merritt would employ some 2,000 men for approximately two years. To justify the enormous expenditures of capital necessary for a large-scale project like the Merritt, public-works advocates pointed out that such projects represented "needful and economically sound addition(s) to community facilities." From Connecticut's point of view, the money needed to build the Merritt would have to be spent anyway on unemployment relief. By employing thousands of workers in the Merrill's construction, the state was simply securing a return on its investment in unemployment relief.
Aside from the workers employed directly in construction, the Merritt project would stimulate employment in all sectors of state's building industry, as contracts were let for grading, road laying, bridge construction, and landscaping. In light of these benefits, many Connecticut citizens saw the immediate construction of the Merritt as a valuable emergency measure in the best interest of the whole state. The construction of the Merritt also made Connecticut eligible for a portion of federal funds then being channeled into public road projects nationwide. The possibility of obtaining federal funds was one of the crucial factors that enabled Commissioner Macdonald to turn the parallel route from plan to reality.
An Aid to Regional Development
In a 1935 press conference, Governor Wilbur Cross explained the threefold purpose of the Merritt: in addition to providing a major traffic artery and thousands of jobs, the parkway would aid in "the progressive and forward-looking development of Fairfield County. "If the governor neglected to explain exactly what he meant by forward-looking development, he was not alone. Similarly vague espousals came from bureaucrats and regional planners alike, who described the Merritt as "a great boon" and a "vital factor" in the county's development. What such platitudes really meant is well-articulated by Robert Caro in The Powerbroker. Though discussing the impact of parkways on Westchester and Long Island, his assessment is equally valid for Fairfield County:
"Sleepy countrysides long static because of their inaccessibility suddenly became desirable locations for factories and housing developments when a parkway brought them close to a city or large town. Land in these areas suddenly became valuable."
The Merritt Parkway would bring Fairfield County close to one city in particular, New York. Fairfield County had always been susceptible to the influences of development in New York City. Indeed, the Fairfield County Planning Association considered New York the most important influence on the county's growth and development. During the booming 1920s, county property values increased by almost 90 percent, rising from an assessed valuation of $516,496,887 in 1920 to $966,770,711 in 1930.27 Most of this increase was attributed to the growth of New York City. In 1926 the New York Times reported that the growth of New York had a double impact on the county, turning it into a haven for commuters and industries, both of which wanted to be close to the city. That same year a highway department engineer predicted the kind of development the construction of the parallel road would spur. The surrounding area would turn into a "high-class residential district," serving New York commuters. This would result in increased real estate values and, of course, increased tax revenues for state coffers.
In the 1930s, as property values gradually declined, Fairfield County officials anxiously looked for ways to stimulate them back to pre-Depression levels, The construction of the Merritt offered a direct means of achieving this. When completed, the parkway would open to development the self-described "hinterlands" of Fairfield County, thousands of acres of land in what had recently been nearly inaccessible countryside and farmland. One Connecticut realtor viewed the Merritt as a "marked impetus to real estate development," predicting that land adjacent to the parkway would be sold off in five- and ten-acre lots to meet the growing demand for suitable "country homes with acreage." Potential real estate value increases were even used to urge the Merritt's completion:
"The increased values in real estate along the route will come from a completed highway--not from a partially completed project. why wait ten years, with millions [of dollars] tied up, before realizing a return on the investment?"
Whether such an argument was as convincing as the simultaneous calls for relief from traffic congestion or unemployment is unknown. But regardless of its purpose, the Merritt Parkway did indeed "control the future of Fairfield County."