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A Nice Day For A Ride Along The Merritt Parkway

I lucked out when I scheduled my ride on the Merritt Parkway on a perfectly sunny, clear, cold day in early January. Jill Smyth, the Director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy (MPC), picked me up at the Stamford train station and we began our visit with a drive to the southern gateway. Here, just north of the Hutchinson River Parkway connection, a vintage visitor center (closed seasonally) welcomes drivers to the great State of Connecticut but offers little information on the parkway itself. The MPC has encouraged the operators to distribute their map of the parkway but my sense is that the operators don't see the road as a destination. But let me tell you, the Merritt Parkway is quite the destination for anyone who loves great roads in America.

This odyssey began when the MPC responded to WMF's open call for nominations to the 2010 Watch, our biennial effort to bring international attention to important and endangered resources from around the world. The MPC nominated the Merritt Parkway and our international panel of experts found the parkway to be both significant as an historic landscape and at risk due to the inevitable changes to meet increasingly rigorous safety and accessibility standards. To me, the Merritt held a particularly important place in America's collection of historic roadways: I, like many others challenged to preserve historic roads, considered the Merritt to be the preservation success story. How could it be that in 2010 the Merritt faces serious challenges to its distinctive character and integrity? The purpose of my trip was to learn more from Jill Smyth.

We began our trip north by looking at some of the most carefully restored and thoughtfully detailed areas of the parkway. From the southern gateway to Stamford, historic details have been carefully preserved or mimicked with contemporary engineering to meet current crash standards such as steel-backed timber barriers and the Merritt Parkway concrete barrier (a whole lot nicer than the typical “Jersey” barrier). These details took years of safety-crash testing to meet American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) standards for vehicle collision design and have become a model for context-sensitive roadway design in America. The modest four-foot shoulder is separated from the landscape with a four foot reinforced green edge. Rich, mixed deciduous and conifer-planted embankments create the famous “green tunnel” of the Merritt and the center island is spotted with specimen trees and grass. Typical highway signage is given a saw tooth border detail and stone font that are exclusive to this road. These details, while perhaps not glaringly apparent to the average driver, add up to make the Merritt one of the great historic parkway success stories in the United States. But even within these carefully restored portions of the Merritt, troubling signs of bridge deterioration and invasive plant growth remind us that the work to preserve the Merritt will never end and that ongoing maintenance is as essential to its survival as the restoration that took place over the past decade.

As we crossed into Stamford at the Stanwich Road bridge, we were reminded that not all of the parkway has been restored with the care seen at the southern gateway. Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) will be undertaking the restoration of this portion of the parkway in 2011 (assuming funding remains in place and available). That work will rid the Merritt of generic, undistinguished late 20th century additions such as galvanized metal guardrails and plantings that depart from the carefully designed landscape that was the hallmark of Weld Thayer Chase's masterpiece. His 1935 parkway design inspired the creation of restoration guidelines by the MPC a decade ago. These guidelines were formally adopted by the ConnDOT but have been implemented with variable success.

The bridges that cross the Merritt or that carry the Merritt over other roadways in the section of the parkway that crosses through Easton and Bridgeport are a current focus of the MPC. Designed by architect George L. Dunkelberger, each of the 69 bridges along the parkway are unique, exuberant expressions of modern cast-in-place concrete. Although many have been altered over the years, twelve bridges between Congress Street and White Plains Road are subject to major “improvements” over the next two construction seasons. Recent projects on other Merritt bridges suggest that more needs to be done to improve the quality of the concrete repair, coatings, and design modifications of these bridge projects.

MPC is perhaps even more concerned, however, by the landscape work being undertaken by the ConnDOT as part of this larger capital investment in the parkway. Citing the need for drainage improvements and a standard of an eighteen-foot vegetation-free zone adjacent to the parkway, ConnDOT has removed approximately 1,800 trees along this portion of the parkway. Many of these trees were evidently in poor health but others seem to have fallen into a larger category of “invasive plant removal.” This has resulted in a diminution of Chase's green tunnel effect in the Fairfield County portions of the parkway and will likely lead to an even greater explosion of invasive plant growth.

The northern portion of the parkway has both elements of the restored parkway and the lost parkway landscape. In the 1970s, large generic concrete overpasses were introduced to carry traffic over the Merritt. These bridges have essentially no relationship to the historic Merritt Parkway and radically change the feel of the road and experience of the driver. Striking a balance between preservation and these modern safety standards is perhaps the most vexing challenge facing the MPC and the ConnDOT. Remembering that the Merritt Parkway is seen as a model for balancing these needs by those tasked with preserving historic roads across America is perhaps one way to ensure that special care is given to this important American landscape.

Over the next several months, WMF will be working with the MPC to develop projects that support their mission to preserve the Merritt Parkway. Increasing the public's awareness of this remarkable American landscape and highlighting the challenges that remain to ensure its long term preservation are central to these efforts.