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Merritt Parkway Grand Opening

From Here to There
Broadcast Premiere: 1998














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HERB JANICK: The automobile of course has been the thing that really completed the suburbanization of CT very early.

NARRATOR: The heavy traffic on Rte 1 led to the opening in 1940 of the state’s first modern highway -- the Merritt Parkway. The Merritt Parkway was acclaimed as one of the most beautiful highways in America.

After WW II, both the urban population and car ownership significantly increased. Massive federal and state highway programs financed the construction of new highways and the upgrading of secondary roads. New and better roads further increased mobility, allowing more state residents to move to towns farther out from the cities.

The biggest post-war road project was the construction of the Connecticut Turnpike in 1958.

MATTHEW NEMERSON (Exec. Dir., New Haven Chamber of Commerce): As soon as the movement to the suburbs after the second World War took off, CT embarked on the greatest suburban support program that any state has seen. You know, we really invented the interstate highway and a lot of people don’t realize that I-95 along the shoreline was built before there was an interstate system. And it was incorporated in afterwards. That’s why we had tolls. That’s why there are so many exits on it because in fact it was designed for people to commute from the suburbs along the shore into the cities.

NARRATOR: The federal highway system brought Interstate 84 and 91 to Connecticut. These roads and other highways like them allowed 

residents to live in once remote small towns and villages across the state. …

With suburban growth came increased demand for highway and road expansion. Connecticut’s urban population continued to decline as the suburbs flourished. In the last 40 years, as Connecticut’s suburban lifestyle evolved, we’ve greatly transformed how we get from place to place.

MIKE ALAN (Radio Pilot & Traffic Reporter): In my earlier days, back in the early eighties, traffic primarily traveled into downtown. All the insurance companies, large businesses were located there. Since then a lot of them have migrated to the suburbs. So the interchanges which were primarily built and designed to handle traffic just coming into downtown and dumping off, now have to be able to handle this traffic to continue through. It’s really provided some new and unique traffic problems.

HARRY HARRIS: We have seen a tremendous growth in the mobility of people. We’ve seen a tremendous growth in where they go. The old spoke and wheel system from outlying areas into the center city to work has basically disappeared in favor of people going from one suburb to another suburb or traversing through various communities.

HARRY STRATE: Husbands and wives now typically work at two jobs. On the way to work we’re dropping off our dry cleaning, we’re dropping off the kids at daycare or at school; coming home we’re picking up a bite to eat the convenience store and running a lot of other errands in midday. So what we would refer to as trip chaining, linking up multiple trip purposes, you could see the bias it starts to lend toward the automobile and toward a system that’s able to respond to our functional demands.

NARRATOR: The number of vehicles registered in Connecticut has steadily increased at a rate much faster than the amount of road mileage in the state.

CHRISTOPHER BRUHL (Pres. & CEO, Business Council of Southwestern CT): People have their cars for a reason. We have two career families. We have had for many generations land use policies favoring the single family home. We are the oldest populated part of the nation, therefore, we have land that’s been developed forever. You don’t have a lot of choices about where you’re going to put certain kinds of facilities any longer. The car’s the way the overwhelming majority of people are going to go to work, and going to work alone is going to be the way the overwhelming majority of people go. It doesn’t help us to call those people bad. They are merely coping based on the choices available.

CT '56 T-BIRD CLUB OWNER 1: "I got my car in 1962. I paid three hundred dollars for it"

CT '56 T-BIRD CLUB OWNER 2: "It’s a lot of fun just driving the car, whenever you can put the top down."

CT '56 T-BIRD CLUB GROUP: "We are members of the CT area classic Thunderbird Club, and we all love our cars."

SEN. BILL CIOTTO (Chairman, Transportation Committee): What’s the first thing a 16-year old kid wants? His driver’s license. Go by every house in the suburb, you tell me if you see one car, if you don’t see two or three cars. We have a love affair with our automobile. That’s our bit of independence. We want to be able to jump into that vehicle, drive to our place of employment, whether it’s an office or a shop, a factory, and we want to be able to park as close as possible to the front door there. And then comes 4:30 or 5 o’clock, God forbid we should have to wait to car pool with somebody and take them home.


NARRATOR: Since 1973, highway travel in the state has increased by 84% while the total road system has increased by less than three percent. The result is spreading congestion and more frequent delays.

DICK MARTINEZ (Chief, CT DOT Bureau of Policy & Planning): The state of Connecticut has about 20,000 miles of roadways, of which about 4,000 miles of it is state highways. And we really monitor the traffic that’s on the state highway system itself. About 20% of those miles are under congested conditions, which primarily occur during the peak hours or the commuting hours, either in the morning or the afternoon. We anticipate about a 20 to 30% increase in vehicle miles of travel in Connecticut over the next 20-year period.

NARRATOR: Clogged roads create pollution, cause more accidents and hurt state economic development as it takes longer for people and goods to get to their destinations.

The worst traffic snarls and tieups in the state take place in the Connecticut Turnpike corridor from New Haven to the New York State Line. I-95 opened in 1965 as a toll road, with the $464 million cost financed entirely by the state.

Today, about 30% of the roadways within the I-95 corridor are over capacity, with the congestion level projected to increase up to 55% in the next few years. I-95 itself is at 180 percent of the rush-hour capacity for which it was designed.

CHRISTOPHER BRUHL: The congestion problems mean that we now measure distance in Fairfield County in minutes, not miles. That more people listen to the traffic report than the weather report. And that a typical commuter taking a 19-mile trip, for example, from Fairfield to Stamford, will expect to spend during rush hour from 45 to 55 minutes on a day without rain or accident. That’s a problem.

HARRY HARRIS: Our studies have indicated that that peak hour problem which now extends for 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours at night, plus or minus, by the Year 2010 is going to extend all day long. We’re going to be looking at a 12-hour a day peak hour. We’re going to be looking at the same kind, albeit a couple years beyond that, in the Hartford area. So what we’re looking at is a tremendous increase in the – in the volume of traffic that our system simply cannot adjust to, and there is no way that we can build our way out of the problem. We cannot build new highways to keep up with this kind of a demand.

NARRATOR: In the Capital Region, the 84 West corridor has also experienced major growth and serious traffic problems, with about 155,000 vehicles a day using the highway from Hartford to Waterbury.

In 1997, the state Dept. of Transportation began a lengthy planning process involving municipalities and agencies to determine how best to improve the overloaded corridor. This April, in a reversal of its historic role in building new highways as a solution to traffic congestion, the DOT ruled out adding a 4th lane to I-84.

FRAN McMAHON (Dir. Transportation, Capitol Region Council of Govts.): The environmental and social impacts of those major highway construction projects just are not acceptable any more. So this is giving us an opportunity to look at some alternative systems, to look at some light rail, perhaps, some bus-way type of systems.

NARRATOR: In the Southeastern part of the state, the Route 2 corridor has seen drastic increases in traffic primarily because of casino development and tourism growth. Since the casinos have opened, traffic has increased by up to 40,000 cars a day. Traffic congestion in the state is not limited to major highways.

MIKE ALAN: The secondary roadways are really, really starting to take some heat. Route 4 is one that has really, really become so heavy. I don’t know how anybody drives it on a regular basis. I can see when I announce a major accident on a highway, particular exit ramps and roadways just automatically starting to build up with traffic. We’re driving on roads that were cow trails, I should say, 200 years ago, now they’re two-lane roads, they’re trying to make them into three-lane roads, they don’t have good interchanges and it’s become very, very difficult to commute and it’s a growing problem. I don’t know what the answer is; just can’t build interstates through Simsbury and Avon.


NARRATOR: In the past, increased traffic often led to new roads or expanded existing roads.

But heightened environmental concerns, local objections and limited finances adversely affect the state’s ability to increase road mileage.

The DOT’s annual budget for capital projects and maintenance is about $604 million.

DICK MARTINEZ: The reality of building brand new roads or brand new transit systems in the state is very, very slim because of the dollar situation that we’re in. We probably spend somewhere in the range of 60 to 70 percent of resources as maintenance or minor improvement oriented and only about 30% of those resources are for expansion.

HARRY HARRIS: We could easily spend a lot more and certainly many of the things that we do the people don’t fully understand that are essential to the operation are extremely expensive. We have a catenary system, for example, on the railroad that was built in the early 1900’s. We’re looking at costs like $300 million to replace that system. We’re looking at bridges at $140 million to replace.

NARRATOR: Financing and the affordability of transportation alternatives is a fundamental problem.

In the Hartford West corridor study, the Capitol Region Council of Governments is planning for about $250 million in transportation improvements. But experts claim that even that may not be enough.

HARRY STRATE: At our first blush of alternatives thinking of the scope and the size of the improvements that need to be made, we’ll far exceed that. So where do the funds come from? And that’s a critical issue. Other parts of the country are resorting to answers that Connecticut a long time ago said that it didn’t want to resort to when we took the tolls off Interstate 95 and took the tolls off the Merritt Parkway, as an example. Does the political system have the will to make the tough financing decisions? I think that’s probably the critical transportation decision that we’re going to have in the next decade. Can we spend the money that we need to spend?

NARRATOR: In 1983 two highway tragedies riveted state residents’ attention on the transportation system.

In January, a truck slammed into three automobiles waiting at the Stratford toll plaza, killing 7 people and injuring many others. Ten months later, the state began to remove all tolls from the Merritt Parkway and the Connecticut Turnpike, resulting in a loss of $69 million in annual revenues.

Then, at 1:30 am on June 1983, part of The Mianus Bridge on the CT Turnpike collapsed, plunging four vehicles into the river. Three people died and three more were injured.

DICK MARTINEZ: With the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge back in ’83, we established a major infra-structure renewal program, which provided dedicated revenues, specifically the gasoline tax, car registration, license fees, etc., that would be specifically used to improve the transportation system, both highway and transit within the state. Here we are 15 years from its inception and we’ve spent probably close to $10 billion on that system to do improvements to both our roadways and our transit system. And so that improvement has to continue.

NARRATOR: Financial pressures have continued to increase as state roads carry ever-increasing numbers of vehicles.

TIMOTHY WALL (Senior Engineer, CT DOT): Because of the climate and where we’re situated in the northeast our roads deteriorate far quicker than say some roads out in Arizona or in Florida. On the interstates, you have a huge majority of heavy truck traffic going through there. And the bridges take a physical pounding year after year especially through the winter. And each year we’re out here especially when you work on some of the interstates the, you never see the volume of traffic being reduced. It always seems from year to year pumping more cars through the projects. There’s a tremendous amount of traffic.

NARRATOR: In order to help finance its $3.5 billion maintenance program, the state issued bonds in the mid eighties and early nineties. Today about 40% of the DOT budget goes to debt service for these bonds, significantly limiting its ability to do new construction.

One long-planned major reconstruction project is the rebuilding of the 50-year-old Qinnippiac River Bridge near the I-95/I-91 interchange in New Haven -- one of the most congested areas in the state.

Estimated construction costs for the project range from $800 million to one-and-a-half billion dollars.

CARMINE TROTTA (Planner, CT DOT): It wasn’t designed for the type of traffic, the volume of traffic that it’s carrying today particularly an extensive amount of truck traffic. During the commuter hours, inbound into New Haven you’re looking at an hour to two hours of traffic congestion, and outbound in the evening about an hour to two hours that way as well. And the traffic, if there’s a breakdown, in particular, since there are no breakdown areas on the bridge, traffic can be backed up for miles with just a simple problem on the bridge.

NARRATOR: All transportation projects undergo a complex and time-consuming planning process. The state DOT began a 10-year study of the Quinnippiac River bridge in 1989.

CARMINE TROTTA: You need a number of approvals on the federal level, on the state level as well as coordination with local governments to insure that what you’re doing is not going to have a disastrous effect on the – on the neighborhoods. As far as number of agencies, there’s probably 50. So it’s the full gamut; it’s the federal, state and local.

NARRATOR: After a five-year design phase, reconstruction of the Q Bridge and its surrounding highways is likely to begin in 2004 and continue for 12 to 15 years.

Plans are being made to cope with potentially massive traffic disruptions during construction.

The state transportation agenda has always been greatly influenced by federal funding. Since 1992, the annual federal transportation grant to the state has averaged about $360 million. In 1998, Congress passed a federal transportation bill that will increase the state’s grant by 20% to $433 million a year.

The state’s gas tax -- the highest in the country – generated $504 million in the last year. After a 3-cent reduction in 1997, the state legislature further cut the unpopular tax by another 4-cents, effective later this year. This year’s reduction means $53 million less a year for the state transportation fund. Surplus state tax revenues and the pending increased federal grant will replace the lost revenues.


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Last modified: September 03, 2012