NORWALK – After a nearly 20-year standstill, local preservationists and transportation planners have agreed on a fix for what’s been called the “most dangerous” section of the Merritt Parkway.
Interchanges 39 and 40 – which are supposed to connect the Merritt to Route 7 – currently redirect drivers onto congested Norwalk streets, as they are missing key connections.
Due to traffic spillover onto city streets, sharp curves and steep grade changes on the exit ramps, the number of car accidents at Intersection 40 far surpasses those on nearby intersections – with 365 crashes reported between 2015 and 2018, compared to 241 at a Fairfield intersection, 222 in Westport and 220 in Darien during the same period.
“It is the most dangerous interchange,” said Wes Haynes, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy. “It’s a very tight exit system as it exists right now.”
Haynes told CT Examiner that the conservancy, a group working to balance preserving the history and character of the Merritt while ensuring it remains functional, has longed for improvements to the interchange. But without suitable alternatives offered by the state Department of Transportation or the Federal Highway Administration, he said they’ve refused to back any proposed plans. The group even filed a lawsuit against the organizations in 2005, stopping construction of a previous plan.
But the standstill came to an end when transportation planners introduced Alternative 26 last month, which Haynes said the conservancy is in “very strong support of.”
The new plan would add the missing connections between the Merritt and Route 7, improve local roadways by widening sidewalks and adding new traffic signals, and remove the steep, curvy ramps. Preliminary construction cost estimates are about $109 million, and the project is expected to be completed around 2027 or 2028.
But the main reason the conservancy backs the plan, Haynes said, is because it’s half the size of the original plan and the 25 subsequent alternatives.
“Because of the reduced size of [Alternative] 26, it scored much higher in terms of wetland impact, open space impact and a whole other group of environmental concerns,” he said. “And it provides a much larger opportunity to do very park-like landscaping around it because there’s just much more green space and less hard space from the construction.”
Stuck at an impasse
In addition to the size, Haynes said the DOT and FHWA’s process this time around has been staunchly different from their 2005 plan, which proposed new overpasses, lengthy exit ramps and the demolition of four historic bridges.
Because the Merritt is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Preservation Act requires transportation planners to engage the public when planning significant construction to it. But the state DOT and FHWA violated the act in 2005 and started construction without any public hearings.
“They had basically ignored the process that the federal government had put in place for national register resources when federal funds are being used to modify them,” Haynes said.
Soon after construction started, the conservancy and other local preservationists sued the agencies and won. The groups were then required to fix damage they had done to a historic bridge, and the judge asked the parties to work together to expedite new plans for the interchange.
If the state had listened to the conservancy’s pleas for a smaller, greener plan, Haynes asserted, the interchange could have been fixed years ago.
“If DOT had maybe yielded a little bit early on in the process, we could have gotten to this point faster,” he said. “But they didn’t, and we held firm, and we eventually got something that will be an asset to the parkway.”
The loss of a bridge
Because the new plan is federally funded, the FHWA was required to study the environmental, social and economic impacts on the surrounding communities through an environmental assessment. The study, published last May, found that Alternative 26 would improve traffic operations, benefit pedestrians and bicyclists and minimize harm to wetlands and wildlife habitats.
While the plan has far fewer negative impacts than the previous alternatives, Haynes said there is one downside – the loss of a historical bridge built in 1938.
The bridge runs across Main Avenue in Norwalk and is one of three stone-faced bridges along the parkway. The 2005 lawsuit was filed in the middle of the bridge’s original demolition, and the judge ordered the DOT to repair the damage. But in order to carry out the interchange improvements, the new plan calls for yet another demolition.
While the conservancy has protected the Main Avenue bridge throughout the construction planning process, Haynes said the group has prepared for its inevitable demolition.
“We knew all along that for them to put this new interchange in, we would have to lose the bridge,” he said.
Still, Haynes said the conservancy is glad to be a part of the design process for the replacement bridge, which will include a wider road above and safe pedestrian access underneath.
“In the long term, we will end up with an improved traffic flow at a very urban point – the most urban point – on the parkway, and we felt that was a special case and we could allow for the loss of the bridge under those circumstances,” Haynes added.
He said the loss of the bridge will also be mitigated by a new geocoded website that allows users to pinpoint areas along the parkway and learn about past, present and future work to be done there.