This 2002 photo shows the southbound I-91 at EXIT 12 (US 5 / Washington Avenue in North Haven. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION OF I-91 IN CONNECTICUT: In conjunction with the national highway system being developed by the Federal government, the Connecticut Highway Department proposed three major freeways in December 1944 as part of the postwar construction program. Routes on the freeway network, which eventually became I-84, I-91 and I-95, were to provide high-speed bypasses of existing US 6, US 5 and US 1, respectively. The routes were also part of the 1953 statewide system of freeways.
Construction of what would eventually become I-91 actually commenced in 1940, four years prior to the Connecticut Highway Department study. This initial section along the Connecticut River in Hartford, originally called the "Park River Highway," opened in 1945 after three years of wartime delays and material shortages.
In 1949, Robert Moses, New York City arterial coordinator and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, consulted on Hartford's arterial problems for a group of area insurance companies. His recommendations on the route of the "North-South Expressway," as I-91 was known then, were as follows:
As to the location of the North-South Expressway from the Conland Highway north along the Connecticut River and the location of the East-West Expressway (I-84), we believe that a new location through the slum area north of the business section would be preferable to the Morgan Street route proposed by the state and city, that the Bulkeley Bridge intersection should be redesigned, that changes should be made in the grading underway at North Meadows, that there should be formal service roads on both sides of the East-West Expressway to protect it, to separate local and through travel, and to encourage restrictive zoning and favorable developments along its borders. Finally, we feel that the Federal slum clearance and public housing provisions of the Federal Housing Law should be invoked and taken advantage of to reduce right-of-way costs, wipe out two substandard areas between Main Street and the Connecticut River, facilitate the orderly moving of tenants to adjacent decent quarters, prevent further obstructions, and fix up the East-West Expressway right-of-way in this presently run-down area so that all those directly or indirectly concerned with the coming improvements may in their own planning be guided accordingly.
We know that the substandard tenement land west of the tracks is zoned for future business and industry, but such zoning is little more than a gesture that establishes a non-conforming use. It is impossible to assemble so large an area otherwise than by condemnation, and this is the opportunity to accomplish at once slum clearance, re-housing, and business and industrial development by a combination of Federal, state, city and private initiative.
Moses later remarked in his 1970 autobiography, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade, as follows:
Considerable construction took place in Hartford after our report, but little of it followed closely our proposals. It is true that the (North-South) expressway was constructed along the river, but this had been planned before we arrived on the scene.
LEFT: This 1963 aerial photo shows the nearly completed I-91, looking north toward the I-84 / I-91 interchange in downtown Hartford. TOP: State Highway Commissioner Howard Ives removes the barricades from the Windsor-Enfield section of I-91 in this 1959 photo. (Photos by Connecticut Highway Department.)
HARTFORD NORTH TO ENFIELD: Work resumed northward on I-91 in 1948 beginning at State Street in downtown Hartford, continuing through the North Meadows area of Hartford, and ending at Windsor. The four-lane "North Meadows Expressway," which was originally planned in 1943 as a relocation of US 5, was opened from downtown Hartford north to EXIT 34 (Main Street) at the city line in 1950. The expressway was extended north to EXIT 38 (CT 75) in Windsor in 1956, and to EXIT 49 (US 5) in Enfield in 1959. When the last "North Meadows" section was completed, the highway was re-designated I-91.
HARTFORD SOUTH TO MERIDEN: Construction of the "South Meadows" section of I-91 from Hartford south to New Haven began in 1960. This work included reconstruction of the original 1940's-era "Park River Highway" in Hartford to modern Interstate standards. A small, eight-to-ten lane section through downtown Hartford, from State Street south to the Charter Oak Bridge (CT 15), was completed in 1964. When it opened, this section was characterized by a number of deficiencies, including successive left-hand exits and incomplete access to I-84. (The routes that were to provide additional access, I-291 and I-484, were never completed.)
When the 12-mile-long, six-lane Hartford-to-Meriden section of I-91 opened in October 1965, motorists were now able to travel non-stop on controlled-access highways between Washington and Boston. Before it opened, traffic from the controlled-access Wilbur Cross Parkway (CT 15) emptied out onto Berlin Turnpike, which was described in The New York Times as follows:
The Berlin Turnpike now represents an unwelcome and often unexpected interlude of traffic lights, narrows curves and steep hills to motorists using the Wilbur Cross Parkway. It is lined on both sides with what its critics contend is an unlovely collection of pizza parlors, snack bars, steak houses, gasoline stations, motels, surplus stores, and near Hartford, a wild animal farm.
MERIDEN SOUTH TO NEW HAVEN: The southernmost section of I-91 was to burrow through a tunnel in New Haven's East Rock Park, then closely parallel US 5 through Hamden and Wallingford. In 1957, amid opposition from citizens and businesses along the originally proposed US 5 alignment, state highway officials created an easterly alignment for I-91, and called for the construction of highway spurs ("connectors") from I-91 in New Haven, Hamden and Wallingford. This final 19-mile, six-to-eight lane section of I-91, which connected the previously completed I-91 at Meriden with the Connecticut Turnpike (I-95) in New Haven, opened on January 6, 1966.
The entire 58 miles of I-91 in Connecticut was completed at a cost of $200 million. Original design capacities ranged from 55,000 vehicles per day (AADT) along four-lane sections, to between 80,000 and 100,000 vehicles per day through Hartford and New Haven.
LEFT: This 1999 photo shows the northbound I-91 at EXIT 5 (US 5) in New Haven. RIGHT: This 1999 photo shows the northbound I-91 at EXIT 10 (CT 40 Expressway-Mount Carmel Connector) in North Haven. (Photos by Steve Anderson.)
RECONSTRUCTION EFFORTS: As early as 1967, state officials realized the need to improve and add capacity to the pre-Interstate and early-Interstate era sections of I-91 from the Capital Area north to the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. Faced with projected traffic volumes of 120,000 vehicles per day by 2000, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) began reconstruction efforts in the mid-to-late 1970's. The first upgrade took place from Hartford south to Wethersfield, where ConnDOT widened a six-lane section of I-91 to eight lanes.
Around that time, ConnDOT floated plans for a $700 million reconstruction of I-91 north of Hartford. Under these plans, I-91 was to be widened to eight general-use lanes between I-84 in Hartford and the proposed I-291 in Windsor, and to six general-use lanes north to Enfield. ConnDOT also considered bus-only lanes along this stretch. In 1980, after nine years of public hearings along the route, ConnDOT decided on the following configurations for the I-91 reconstruction:
From downtown Hartford north to the CT 20 Expressway in Windsor, I-91 was to be reconstructed as an eight-lane facility. Two of the eight lanes were to be devoted to HOV use.
From Windsor north to the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, I-91 was to be expanded to a six-lane, general-use facility.
Provisions were to be made for an interchange with I-291 (which was to be constructed from I-91 in Windsor to I-84 in Manchester), as well as for interchange improvements with the CT 20 Expressway.
The reconstruction of I-91 north of Hartford began in 1987, a project that included upgrading the highway to contemporary Interstate standards, adding HOV lanes, and installing noise abatement walls. During this process, 80 families (mostly in the Windsor area) were displaced. This project was completed in 1992.
Throughout the 1990's, I-91 was improved expanded once again, this time from Wethersfield south to Rocky Hill. This project included widening the roadway from six to eight general-use lanes, reconstructing EXITS 25-26 (CT 3) in Wethersfield, and eliminating the unused I-291 overpasses (at what was to have been EXIT 23A) in Rocky Hill.
HIGHWAY RECONSTRUCTION AND URBAN RENEWAL IN HARTFORD: The I-91 / I-84 / CT 2 interchange improvement project, also known as the "Riverfront Plaza and Founders Bridge Reconstruction Project," was envisioned as a means to revitalize downtown Hartford. The 1981 plan had three main goals:
furnishing improved access between I-84, I-91 and CT 2
providing improved pedestrian access from downtown Hartford to the Connecticut River and East Hartford (via the reconstructed Founders Bridge)
reconnecting the downtown area with the Connecticut River
Construction of the $115 million project began in 1987. During this project, the southbound lanes of I-91 were moved from above to below the Founders Bridge approaches to permit construction of the 1.5-acre landscaped deck (Riverfront Plaza). The landscaped deck, which spans I-91, railroad tracks and flood control walls, is a platform-supported, terraced structure that steps down to the waterfront. ConnDOT also constructed new flyover ramps to provide direct access from I-91 to I-84, taking exiting traffic off downtown streets. The new interchange was completed in 1998, and the opening of Riverfront Plaza followed two years later.
The new Riverfront Plaza is expected to generate $700 million in new development, including a convention center, hotel, science center, stores and residential units.
LEFT: This 1999 photo shows the northbound I-91 (inner roadway) and the northbound CT 15 (outer roadway) in Meriden. I-91, I-691, CT 15 and CT 66 converge at this massive interchange. RIGHT: This 2001 photo shows the northbound I-91 at EXITS 25-26 (CT 3 Expressway) in Wethersfield. This interchange was reconstructed in the early 1990's. (Photos by Steve Anderson.)
CURRENT AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS: According to ConnDOT, Interstate 91 carries approximately 135,000 vehicles per day through the New Haven area, falling to approximately 80,000 vehicles per day through the Meriden area, rising back to approximately 140,000 vehicles per day through downtown Hartford, and dipping back to approximately 90,000 vehicles per day north from the North Meadows area to the Connecticut-Massachusetts border.
In 1998, ConnDOT increased the speed limit to 65 MPH along I-91 from EXIT 8 (CT 17 and CT 80) in New Haven north to EXIT 16 (East Main Street) in Meriden, from EXIT 19 (Baldwin Avenue-Preston Avenue) in Meriden north to EXIT 25 (CT 3 Expressway) in Wethersfield, and from EXIT 35 (I-291 and CT 218) in Windsor north to the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. Other sections of I-91 are posted at 50 MPH and 55 MPH.
To address safety and congestion issues, ConnDOT has undertaken the following projects along the I-91 corridor:
ConnDOT resurfaced the roadway and rehabilitated the bridges along I-91 through New Haven. During the project, some lanes were closed from the southern terminus at I-95 (Connecticut Turnpike) north to EXIT 8 (CT 17 and CT 80). The reconstruction project was completed in 2002.
The overpass at EXIT 15 (CT 68) in Wallingford was widened and rebuilt to accommodate increased development in the area of the interchange.
ConnDOT is rebuilding the massive interchange between the I-91, the Connecticut Turnpike (I-95) and the CT 34 Expressway in downtown New Haven. The project includes reconfiguration of the interchange to eliminate left-lane exit and entrance ramps, reconstruction of 18 bridges, addition of new shoulders and a new concrete median barrier, and provisions for two-lane freeway-to-freeway connections wherever possible. Construction of the massive project began in 2004 and is expected to continue through 2016 in conjunction with the I-95 "Q-Bridge" replacement project.
Some state legislators have recently proposed a new commuter rail line along the existing Amtrak right-of-way from New Haven north to Hartford. Proponents have stated that the rail line could prevent traffic congestion on I-91 from becoming as severe as that on I-95 through Fairfield and New Haven counties.
LEFT: This 1999 photo shows the northbound I-91 approaching EXIT 29A (CT 598-Whitehead Highway) in downtown Hartford. This left-hand exit was originally intended to direct traffic onto westbound I-484, which was to tunnel under the State Capitol and continue onto westbound I-84. (Photo by Steve Anderson.) RIGHT: This 1998 photo shows the southbound I-91 approaching EXIT 30 (I-84 and CT 2) in downtown Hartford. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)
I-91 TO LONG ISLAND? Since the late 1960's, a number of proposals have been floated for a 19.3-mile-long, four-lane Long Island Sound bridge between New Haven and Shoreham, New York. From Shoreham, I-91 would have been extended south along William Floyd Parkway (Suffolk CR 46) to at least the Long Island Expressway (I-495) in Yaphank, and perhaps as far south as Sunrise Highway (NY 27) in Shirley.
Two approaches were considered for the Shoreham-New Haven Bridge. The first approach would have taken I-91 south along I-95 to West Haven, where I-91 would have cut a path through West Haven. The second approach would have taken I-91 along I-95 east of the Quinnipiac River to East Haven, where I-91 was to travel south through a less sparsely populated area. It was selected as the preferred approach alternative for the bridge.
In its 1978 series "Long Island at the Crossroads," the Long Island-based Newsday advanced the Shoreham-New Haven Bridge to promote commercial and industrial development not only on central and eastern Long Island, but also in southern Connecticut. According to the 1979 Long Island Sound Bridge Study conducted by the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), it was estimated that the Shoreham-New Haven Bridge would carry an average of 15,500 vehicles per day, based on a 1990 toll of $6.00 each way. The proposed span between Suffolk County and Connecticut was estimated in 1971 to cost $565 million. By 1979, spiraling inflation had pushed this cost estimate to $1.4 billion.
While Long Island officials and business executives pressed for a fixed crossing of Long Island Sound, Connecticut officials, led by Governor Ella T. Grasso, opposed the bridge. Although attention in years since has been focused on developing a high-speed ferry route between Shoreham and New Haven, one recommendation in the recent NYSDOT "LITP 2000" study called for reviving the proposed Shoreham-New Haven Bridge. (This proposal has been dropped for the time being.)
This 2006 photo shows the northbound I-91 at EXIT 35 (I-291 and CT 218) in Windsor. Originally built in the 1950's, this section was widened and rebuilt in the late 1980's and early 1990's. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
As part of the construction of the Shoreham-New Haven crossing, a new approach route should be constructed for I-91 along the east side of the Quinnipiac River. The new I-91 approach route would begin near EXIT 8 (CT 17 and CT 80) in New Haven, and continuing south and utilizing the Amtrak right-of-way wherever possible. A new full-cloverleaf interchange would be constructed with the Connecticut Turnpike (I-95) near EXIT 51 in East Haven. No additional interchanges would be constructed along the new I-91 south of I-95.
The existing I-91 between I-95 and the CT 17-CT 80 interchange would be given a new designation: I-491. This route would be used for through traffic between the New York metropolitan area and the rest of New England.
SOURCES: Regional Highways: Status Report, Tri-State Transportation Commission (1962); Connecticut Highways (1959-1963), Connecticut Highway Department (1963); "New Road Pushed by Connecticut" by Richard H. Parke, The New York Times (8/07/1964); "Connecticut Gap in Route 91 Closed," The New York Times (1/07/1966); Connecticut Highway Needs, Connecticut Highway Department (1967); "Estimate of the Cost of Completing the National System of Defense Highways in Connecticut," Federal Highway Administration and Connecticut Highway Department (1968); Public Works: A Dangerous Trade by Robert Moses, McGraw-Hill (1970); A Comprehensive Transportation Study for Proposed Bridge Crossings, Creighton, Hamburg, Incorporated (December 1971); "Interstates 91 and 291, Administrative Action Final Environmental Impact Statement and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and Connecticut Department of Transportation (1973); "A Bridge Link to Connecticut Could Spur Long Island's Economic Growth," Newsday (3/22/1978); Long Island Sound Bridge Study, New York State Department of Transportation (December 1979); Greater Hartford Study, Connecticut Department of Transportation (1980); "Anxiety Over Road Plans" by Deborah Gieringer, The New York Times (3/08/1981); "Interstate 91, Hartford to Enfield, Connecticut: Administrative Action Final Environmental Impact Statement and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and Connecticut Department of Transportation (1981); Divided Highways by Tom Lewis, Viking-Penguin Books (1997); "To Get There from Here, Wait 20 Years" by Vivian S. Toy, The New York Times (6/25/2000); "Truck Stop and Rest Area Parking Study," Connecticut Department of Transportation (2000); "Efforts To Solve Traffic Congestion Hit Roadblocks," The Associated Press (2/20/2001); "Inventory of Comparative Decking Projects," Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas (2001); "I-95 New Haven Harbor Corridor Crossing Improvement Program," Connecticut Department of Transportation (2008); Berger, Lehman Associates; Erich Bachman; Jay Hogan; Scott Oglesby; Alexander Svirsky.
I-91 and I-491 shields by Ralph Herman Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company. HOV sign by C.C. Slater.