A Trail With Merit

Plans for a path beside Connecticut's 1938 Merritt Parkway

The Merritt Parkway's Jones Farm Road Bridge, Stratford, Conn.

Credit: Merritt Parkway Conservancy

"This great highway is not being constructed for rapid transit but for pleasant transit."

—Schuyler Merritt, July 1934, at the groundbreaking of the Merritt Parkway

For the closest experience to commuting through a park, many drivers traverse western Connecticut on the Merritt Parkway, which stretches 37-and-a-half miles from Greenwich to Stratford amid trees, rock ledges, art deco bridges, and views of ridges and valleys.

Last summer, state transportation officials finally dropped the idea of widening the Merritt. The road, which opened in 1938, will retain the charm of the early 20th century, when motorists occasionally pulled off onto the grass to rest.

Picnics on the shoulder aren't allowed now, but walking beside the parkway might soon be. A group of activists and local officials is working to establish a parallel trail. The bicycle, walking, and horse route would use a 150-foot-wide corridor of land originally set aside to widen the road.

Merritt Parkway

Credit: Merritt Parkway Conservancy

To highlight landmarks that might have been lost if the road were expanded, the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, a nonprofit group formed three years ago by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, in May published a map of the parkway's natural and manmade features. (Last year, the Trust's Northeast Office gave the conservancy a $1,500 grant toward the map.)

The idea for a trail is 10 years old, but it took on new life in April, when the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance, formed three years ago, learned from meetings with local officials that many of the towns along the parkway want the trail.

"Four or five years ago, people started realizing that trails are an asset to the community, that they're important for exercise," says Linda Hoza, who directs the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance. "If people have trails, they'll use them. They'll get out of their cars. They help preserve open space. It's smart planning to have trails in the community."

Named for former U.S. Representative Schuyler Merritt of Connecticut, it was one of the first limited access highways in America. Thirteen years ago, preservationists helped place the Merritt Parkway on the National Register of Historic Places, along with more than 60 other roads. 

Traffic on the parkway

Credit: Merritt Parkway Conservancy

Those who drive the Merritt know why some might have justified widening it. When engineers designed the highway, the population of Fairfield County, Conn., was about 200,000; today it is about 885,000. Planners expected 30,000 cars a day, going 45 miles per hour. Last year the Connecticut Department of Transportation counted 74,700 cars one day at one interchange.

In July 2003, the state's department of transportation acknowledged, after years of consideration, that widening the Merritt would cost far too much to be worthwhile. It did so in a letter to trail advocates saying that the department would not oppose placing a trail on the land originally set aside for extra lanes, as long as the cities and towns along the parkway wanted a trail.

Ten years ago, Jennifer Aley hiked all 37-and-a-half miles of the parkway for a study for Regional Plan Association (RPA), a nonprofit serving Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. "I walked the whole thing in all different kinds of weather," Aley says. "There are places where the right-of-way is completely covered with forest and places where you can see the road. You can see the bridges much better than you can see them from a car."

Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy announced in 2001 that his city would plan a mile-long trail on part of its stretch of the parkway. "The Merritt Parkway is one of America's great road systems," Malloy says. "In an environment where people are densely populated, this is an opportunity that is unparalleled and relatively inexpensive to produce, and on its face just makes so much darn sense."

Not everyone wants a trail along the Merritt. Some municipal officials have expressed doubts that it would be feasible to build one, and the Merritt Parkway Conservancy has expressed reservations.

"We support the construction of a demonstration portion, the one-mile section in Stamford, but we are not endorsing the idea of a full trail until we see what it's going to look like," says Peter Szabo, who helped found the group and now is its program advisor. "It's really critical to know how that trail is going to affect the experience of being on the Merritt Parkway. Is it going to require a 10-foot-high chain-link fence?" 

Detail of Jones Farm Road Bridge

Credit: MPC

Most amazing is the willingness of Connecticut drivers to choose beauty and traffic jams over expansion and speed along one of their favorite highways. William D. O'Neill of Manchester, who is the Connecticut coordinator of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, said that a key development in the trail movement came when former Connecticut transportation director Emil Frankel halted the momentum toward adding car lanes to the Merritt. (Frankel today is assistant secretary for transportation policy with the U.S. Department of Transportation.)

In July 2003, in a major turning point for the trail alliance group, Connecticut DOT commissioner, James F. Byrnes, Jr., said in a letter to the RPA that the state would wait to see how residents along the highway felt about a trail. It was the first official acknowledgement that the state did not oppose a trail.

W. Thayer Chase, the Merritt's original landscape architect, may have approved of a trail, says Aley, who interviewed him before he died last year at age 94. "What he said to me was that initially, during the design process, there were proposals for trails along the parkway but that they were not included in the final design."


For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed