With its natural setting and unique, distinctive bridges, the Merritt Parkway enjoys an iconic status and helps to define Fairfield County. But it was built to be – and remains – a critical travel corridor. The Merritt Parkway Trail would make this corridor usable by non-motorized modes of transportation.
Completed in 1934, the primary purpose of the Merritt was to relieve traffic congestion, especially on U.S. Route 1, the Boston Post Road, which had become intolerably congested. At the time, the Post Road was the most heavily traveled highway in Connecticut.
The Connecticut Turnpike (now Interstate Route I-95), completed in 1958, was also built to relieve congestion, by then on both the Post Road and the Merritt. But by 2015, with the increase in motor vehicle use and the decline in the movement of freight by rail and water, the roads in southwestern Connecticut have become even more heavily used.
The increase in motor vehicle use has resulted in less safe travel for non-motorized modes of transportation, particularly when traveling east or west. The Post Road, Route I-95 and the Merritt are the only east-west routes that cross southwestern Connecticut. All three are seriously congested, and only the Post Road is usable by non-motorized modes.
In contrast, the region’s road system affords travelers a choice of north-south roads, some lightly traveled. In addition, two north-south multi-use trails are being developed, both of which will cross the Merritt:
The Merritt Parkway corridor represents an opportunity – indeed, the only opportunity – for an off-road east-west trail through the region. When the Merritt was built, the state acquired a swath of land or right-of-way approximately 300′ wide. For the most part, the highway was constructed on the northerly one-third or one-half of the right-of-way, leaving the southern part free of development.
Similarly to parkways that had already been built in Westchester County and on Long Island, the Merritt was conceived of not simply as a traffic artery but also as a linear park. The southern part of the right-of-way was left undeveloped with the intention that it would be a park. Equestrian and hiking trails were accommodated, and underpasses were constructed to enable certain trails to cross the roadway. But over time the original park-like setting of the right-of-way has been replaced by forest, and some of these trails have ceased to be usable.
The Merritt Parkway Trail was initially proposed in a study done in 1994 by the respected Regional Plan Association . It is in the long range plans of the two regional planning agencies through whose planning regions the Merritt passes, the Western Connecticut Council of Governments and the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council, in each case as a part of a regional network of bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
In 2012, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (Conn/DOT) commenced a feasibility study of developing the Merritt Parkway Trail. The study is expected to be completed by fall 2015. In February 2015, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy announced his 30-year transportation plan for the state, which provides for the construction of the Merritt Parkway Trail.