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Merritt Parkway: Greenwich, Connecticut

Project Abstract

Much has been written and reported about the safety improvements and landscape restoration of the Merritt Parkway which started in the 1990s in Greenwich, Connecticut, a unique community that shaped the approach that was ultimately taken to improve this roadway. The community's influence started long before any formal design process was undertaken, and in fact, and was instrumental in motivating the context sensitive design approach (although not called such at the time). Overall this project can be considered an excellent example of how a road represents so much more to a community than simply a transportation conduit. The future of this roadway was community driven and while the DOT provided the leadership and expertise to accomplish the improvements, their use of other professionals, such as landscape architects and historians, improved the final result. This case study focuses on the initial context sensitive design process which preceded the first improvements to the highway and revitalization of the setting.



KENTUCKY  MERRITT  BARRIER: Merritt Parkway steel back timber barrier.
Merritt Parkway steel back timber barrier.
Project Description and History:

Much has been written and reported about the safety improvements and landscape restoration of the Merritt Parkway which started in the 1990s in Greenwich, Connecticut. This project will be undertaken in seven sections and this case study focuses on the first phase, the gateway, for which design started in 1992 and construction was completed in 1997. It is fitting to include this project in a community-based study because the unique community of Greenwich shaped the approach that was ultimately taken to improve this roadway. The community's influence started long before any formal design process was undertaken, and in fact, and was instrumental in motivating the context sensitive design approach (although not called such at the time).

The history of the Merritt Parkway is long and very significant to the conduct of this restoration project. In 1923, the plan to build a route parallel to the very busy U.S. Route 1 along the north shore of Long Island Sound, in Connecticut outside of New York City, was first conceived. The 38 mile Merritt Parkway (US Route 15) which runs from the New York State line to just west of New Haven, Connecticut was completely opened in 1940. It was one of the first parkways in the country and the first limited access highway in Connecticut. The divided four-lane facility is approximately 5 miles north of the Sound which runs parallel to the coast. The original conception was for a somewhat open formal garden way that offered vistas of the adjacent and mostly rural farm land. The roadway was designed to include extensive landscaping which was reduced in the 1970s to save costs.

The most notable aesthetic features of the parkway are the bridges representing Art Moderne, Art Deco, Classical, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. These bridges are undoubtedly the most treasured aspect of the facility for the community and travelers alike. Each bridge, both over and under the parkway, is unique and very few had been replaced or altered significantly for maintenance or repair. A less unique, but certainly charming, architectural element to the parkway is the frequent service areas which consist of miniature stone "old fashioned" gas stations.

Over time, the rural farm land surrounding the parkway was transformed into more developed suburban land use. The parkway itself remained buffered from the development owing to the very wide highway right of way. The wide right of way was originally intended to contain a second parallel roadway. Certainly in the 1980s, as traffic congestion on the parallel Interstate 95 on the shore of Long Island Sound became very significant, there were those that may have looked to expansion of the Merritt Parkway as a corridor traffic management solution. The existence of the large right of way made this possibility seem very real to many community members who wished to preserve the parkway.

Over the years, the gardens were transformed to rather dense and overgrown forests, that while different from originally conceived, still provide a peaceful park-like setting. However, despite the park-like setting, some members of the public indicated during this case study, that they still feel somewhat unsafe on the narrow road that lacks shoulders. Vehicles tend to drive freeway level speeds on this road which lackscertainly does not have interstate level geometric standards. When the redesign process for the parkway began in 1992, the ADT was nearly 40,000 vehicles (no trucks or buses are allowed on the parkway) and the 85% percentile speed was approaching 70 mph.

This case study focuses on the initial context sensitive design process which preceded the first improvements to the highway and revitalization of the setting. This first section runs from the New York State Line in the Town of Greenwich in the southwest corner of Connecticut. The project runs for 2.5 miles. The second phase of work is about to start in 2002 as of this writing and the third phase is in design. These subsequent phases are proceeding based on the documented guidelines and landscape plan that was developed during the multi-year multi-group effort preceding the gateway project.
Further Reading:
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Merritt Parkway steel back timber barrier.
    
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Merritt Parkway steel back timber barrier.
    
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