This 1999 photo shows the US 7 Expressway at EXIT 3 (CT 15 / Merritt Parkway) in Norwalk. This section of US 7 was completed in 1992. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
"We were wrong to say no to Super 7 for so long. Our motives were noble - we thought we could stop progress - but we couldn'tů We've let the developers build their houses, offices and malls. Like it or not, people have come to live, work and shop in them, and they all drive. I see no alternative but to build the damned road and be done with it." - Tom Dryden, a former opponent of the US 7 Expressway voicing his support for the road in The Wilton Villager
IN THE PLANNING STAGES: For nearly five decades, state and regional officials have planned an expressway to replace the existing US 7 between Norwalk and Danbury. In 1955, the Connecticut Highway Department began planning improvements to US 7 in this corridor. Two years later, the state announced that the existing US 7 would be expanded from two to four lanes between Norwalk and Danbury, and estimated that the project would be completed by 1962. Except for several stretches, the existing road was never widened.
In 1961, the Connecticut Highway Department announced larger plans for the $130 million, four-lane US 7 Expressway along a new right-of-way between Norwalk and New Milford. North of New Milford, the existing two-lane US 7 was to be rebuilt. In the city of Norwalk, the expressway was to connect I-95 (Connecticut Turnpike) and CT 15 (Merritt Parkway) along the "River Route" alternative. Connections were to be provided with downtown Norwalk and South Norwalk. The proposed expressway was to also connect with I-84 (Yankee Expressway) in Danbury and the proposed east-west CT 35 Expressway near Ridgefield.
The Connecticut Highway Department began purchasing land for the US 7 Expressway right-of-way, and estimated that construction would begin in late 1964. However, even after the state spent $33 million to acquire much of the right-of-way, the expressway was once again delayed following contentious hearings held in towns along the route.
THE NORWALK SECTION: In 1969, ground was broken for the US 7 Expressway in downtown Norwalk. Two years later, a four-lane 1.2-mile section connecting I-95 (EXIT 14) with CT 123 (New Canaan Avenue) was completed. Further construction of the Norwalk segment was stopped by a court injunction issued by Federal Judge Jon O. Newman in July 1972.
After two decades of environmental impact statements and community opposition, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) extended the US 7 Expressway northward in 1992. The 2.7-mile, $75 million extension continued the expressway north from CT 123 past the Merritt Parkway (CT 15), where a partial interchange was constructed. (Officials scuttled original plans for a four-level "stack" interchange with CT 15, fearing that the design seemed out of character for the Merritt Parkway.)
The Norwalk section of the US 7 Expressway currently ends at a signalized at-grade intersection at Grist Mill Road - the site of numerous accidents (some of them deadly) - near the Norwalk-Wilton border. Driving north toward the end of the expressway, a rock wall faces motorists directly at the T-intersection with Grist Mill Road. In response to these accidents, ConnDOT installed roadside signs with flashers, overhead signs and flashing double arrows to warn motorists of the end of the expressway. ConnDOT had planned in 2005 to blast away the rock wall at the intersection and replace it with a 100-foot-wide slope stretching 40 to 50 feet back from Grist Mill Road, but this work was postponed indefinitely.
Further improvements are planned for the Norwalk section. At EXIT 3 (CT 15 / Merritt Parkway), ConnDOT planned to build four new ramps (including two flyover ramps) to allow access to and from points north on the US 7 Expressway, and access to and from points east on the Merritt Parkway. Work on the $98 million interchange project was scheduled to begin in 2005, but a lawsuit filed by the Merritt Parkway Conservancy and the National Trust for Historic Preservation held up construction amid concerns that the rebuilt interchange would create more congestion and destroy the character of the Merritt Parkway. In 2008, these groups reached an agreement with ConnDOT under which a less disruptive conventional cloverleaf interchange would be built instead. No dates have been set for construction.
According to ConnDOT, the US 7 Expressway carries approximately 60,000 vehicles per day (AADT) through the city of Norwalk.
This 1961 photo shows construction of the interchange between US 7 and I-84 (at EXIT 7 on I-84) in Danbury. High-speed ramps were built in anticipation of the US 7 Expressway conversion. This section of US 7 was extended north from I-84 in the mid-1970's. (Photo by Connecticut Highway Department.)
DANBURY TO BROOKFIELD: The Danbury section of the US 7 Expressway is multiplexed for 3.7 miles with I-84, US 6, and US 202. This section of I-84 was completed through the Danbury area in December 1961.
In mid-1974, preliminary work began on the Danbury-to-Brookfield segment. Although $500,000 in Federal funds had already been spent, Judge Newman ruled that the money spent on planning and minor interchange work was "insufficient" to warrant an environmental impact statement. Despite a then-incomplete environmental impact statement and a threatened loss of additional Federal funding, construction crews began clearing a route for the 4.5-mile, $34 million section of the US 7 Expressway. This section of the expressway, which traverses the Still River plain from I-84 in Danbury north to the existing US 7-US 202 in Brookfield, opened three years later.
In 1992, another 1.2-mile section of the US 7 Expressway opened in the Danbury area. This section, which extends from I-84 south to Wooster Heights Road in Danbury, provides access to Danbury Fair Mall via Backus Avenue.
According to ConnDOT, the US 7 Expressway carries approximately 40,000 vehicles per day through the Danbury area.
NORTH TO NEW MILFORD: In 1998, the state proposed a 2.1-mile-long expressway extension from the current terminus at Federal Road north to the Fairfield-Litchfield county border. Two years later, under pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (which opposed the 1998 plan), ConnDOT selected a shorter 1.5-mile-long route, with the expressway abruptly ending at Laurel Hill Road in Brookfield, and planned to widen the existing Federal Road (US 7-US 202) north to New Milford.
While the revised route of the US 7 Expressway extension would have avoided wetlands, it would have caused the displacement of five homes and three businesses. Concerns over this displacement, as well as the inadequate traffic service of the revised plan, prompted ConnDOT to return to its 1998 plan. In December 2000, the Army Corps of Engineers approved the plan.
Originally estimated at $30 million, the cost of the project has risen to $98 million due to unexpected increases in right-of-way and construction costs. Work on the Brookfield-New Milford northerly extension of "Super 7" began in May 2007 after three years of studies over the survivability of bog turtles in the area; it now is scheduled for completion in November 2008.
These 2007 photos show the existing northern terminus of the US 7 Expressway at EXIT 12 (US 202) in Brookfield. In these photos, the US 202 overpass spans the US 7 right-of-way, which had been unused for more than 30 years. Work began on extending the expressway to New Milford two months after these photos were taken. The extension is slated for completion in late 2008. (Photos by Steve Anderson.)
END OF THE ROAD: This 2000 photo shows the northern terminus of the US 7 Expressway at Grist Mill Road in Norwalk. The stone wall, which has been the site of numerous accidents over the years, was to be blasted in 2005, but remains untouched to this day. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)
PART OF A LARGER PLAN: The US 7 Expressway through Fairfield County was planned as part of a much larger expressway proposal that was to parallel the existing US 7 through Litchfield County, continue north through the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts and the Green Mountains of Vermont, and terminate at I-89 in Burlington, Vermont. The idea of an Interstate highway corridor along US 7 was not a new idea. A preliminary 48,300-mile network devised in 1944 had "I-89" extending from Norwalk north to the Vermont-Quebec border. The early routing was abandoned in favor of the current I-89 route.
Proponents contended that the $2 billion expressway would not only alleviate congestion on the US 7 corridor, but also spur economic development in northwestern Connecticut, western Massachusetts and Vermont. They cited safety concerns, including the six-percent (or higher) grades and 500-foot sight distances that contributed to accident rates that were 50 percent higher than the statewide average for similar roads. To accelerate the project, proponents advocated Interstate funding, which would have guaranteed 90 percent Federal financing, for "Super 7."
Opponents contended that the proposed expressway would contribute to air and water pollution, promote suburban sprawl, and destroy the rustic character of New England towns. They also disapproved of plans to construct a massive, three-level interchange with the Merritt Parkway that "would rival the Bruckner interchange in size" and destroy the rural character of the Merritt Parkway.
In its 1966 report, Transportation 1985: A Regional Plan, the Tri-State Transportation Commission recommended construction of the US 7 Expressway between Norwalk and New Milford as a "priority project" for completion by 1975. The section of the expressway from New Milford north to the Massachusetts border was designated as a "long-range proposal" for completion by 1985. The Commission stated the purpose and benefits of the "Super 7" as follows:
The completion of this north-south expressway (through the Southwestern and Housatonic Valley planning regions) will replace an existing narrow highway. Along its southern stretches, it will distribute traffic to urban corridor radials, relieve congested arterials and serve fast-growing suburbs. Further north, the expressway will fill a need for a limited-access facility between the Taconic State Parkway and the CT 8 Expressway, a gap of 35 miles. It will serve rural and recreational areas.
Construction of the US 7 Expressway began in 1969, one year before the National Environmental Protection Act required that any project receiving Federal funds be subject to environmental review. The lack of an environmental impact statement prompted Judge Newman to issue an injunction halting all construction north of CT 123 in 1972.
In December 1974, a U.S. appeals court ruled that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) was ordered to undertake its own environmental impact statement for the multi-state upgrade of US 7, effectively killing the US 7 Expressway in Massachusetts and Vermont. (Theoretically, Connecticut could have continued construction of US 7 if it did not use Federal funds. In reality, however, ConnDOT remained bound by Judge Newman's 1972 ruling.)
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD: In 1978, a new environmental impact statement was issued for the Norwalk-to-Danbury section of the US 7 Expressway. The proposed "Super 7" controlled-access freeway was to have six lanes from the existing section north to Grist Mill Road in Norwalk, then four lanes north to Danbury. The preferred alternative would have taken 469 acres of woodland and 157 acres of wetland (including 23.19 acres in Wooster Mountain State Park. It would not have required additional right-of-way beyond what had already been acquired in the 1960's. During the original right-of-way acquisition, 330 families and 19 businesses were moved, and land was purchased at a cost of $33 million.
Interchanges were to be constructed at the following locations:
EXIT 3: CT 15 (Merritt Parkway) in Norwalk, stack interchange (later revised to cloverleaf) EXIT 4: Grist Mill Road in Norwalk, diamond interchange EXIT 5: CT 33 in Wilton, modified cloverleaf interchange EXIT 6: existing US 7 in Wilton, diamond interchange EXIT 7: CT 102 in Redding, diamond interchange EXIT 8: existing US 7 in Redding, diamond interchange EXIT 9: CT 35 in Redding, modified cloverleaf interchange EXIT 10: Wooster Heights Road in Danbury, diamond interchange EXIT 11: Backus Avenue and Starrs Ridge Road in Danbury, diamond interchange
A number of alternative alignments were studied for the environmentally sensitive stretch through Wooster Mountain State Park, including the use of elevated roadways and twin-tube tunnels through the steep slopes that abut the highway from the usable areas of the park. The environmental impact study recommended the construction of northbound and southbound roadways on split levels.
The US 7 Expressway was planned with a design capacity of 80,000 vehicles per day (AADT) on its six-lane segments, and 50,000 vehicles per day on its four-lane segments. Pedestrian and cycling paths were to be constructed along the "Super 7" right-of-way.
In 1980, construction of the US 7 Expressway between Norwalk and Danbury received the green light when Federal Judge Gilroy Daly lifted the 1972 court injunction that banned construction. In his court opinion, Judge Daly believed that the revised environmental impact statement prepared by state and Federal highway authorities was adequate.
This victory for the pro-highway forces only served to embolden the highway opponents. From Diane Haavind, president of Citizens for Balanced Environment and Transportation:
They feel they can get the roadway built at breakneck speed before we can get into court with another suit. They think building one section will create a demand for the next section and the next section, and then the entire road. The highway will be a white elephant if it ever opens. Who's going to have the gasoline for extravagance like that in ten years?
Even with the apparent victory, state transportation commissioner Arthur Powers acknowledged that it would be many years before the US 7 Expressway was completed as follows:
Route 7 was one of the top priorities of this department. However, considering the fiscal restraints we're all living under, the financial picture doesn't change, we're talking about a 15-year project to link Norwalk and Danbury.
One study advanced by ConnDOT in 1981 involved constructing the US 7 Expressway as a toll road. The study, which proposed that two 30-cent mainline toll stations be constructed in Norwalk and Danbury, and that 15-cent ramp tolls be constructed, concluded that the tolls would not cover the cost of construction and maintenance. It also concluded that the stop-and-go movement associated with toll plazas would increase air pollution.
UNBUILT, BUT NOT DEAD: Although most of the 15.5-mile missing link between Norwalk and Danbury is no longer on the ConnDOT long-range infrastructure program - save for a two-mile extension north to CT 33 in Wilton currently on the project docket - the US 7 Expressway proposal remains alive. Indeed, the state still owns about 1,000 acres that had been purchased for the expressway's right-of-way in the 1960's. Under current estimates, construction of the expressway is expected to cost $1.4 billion, 80 percent of which will be paid with Federal funds. This compares with a 1975 cost estimate of $193 million for the missing link.
Opponents, led by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (a pro-transit advocacy group) and Friends of the Earth, have so far been successful in upholding construction, contending that the US 7 Expressway would destroy 64 acres of wetlands along the proposed route, and that traffic estimates along the US 7 corridor were overestimated in environmental impact statements. In 1995, the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials dropped its longtime support of the expressway, citing lengthy delays in getting the proper environmental approval.
Instead of constructing the US 7 Expressway, many opponents favor improving rail service on the nearby Metro-North Danbury line. However, Jim Cameron of the Commuter Rail Council cites some of the shortcomings of the rail line as follows:
The issue isn't diesel versus electric. A review of timetables from the 1950's when electric trains still ran between Norwalk and Danbury shows they were only five or six minutes faster than the diesel trains that now serve the line. The real problem is the road bed, a meandering track line with so many curves and grade crossings that any train, must, by law, slow to speeds of 10 or 15 miles per hour.
Meanwhile, proponents (including mayors and chambers of commerce) cite that construction of the expressway would have many benefits along the US 7 corridor. Donna Hamel, former chairwoman of the Committee for the Extension of Route 7, told The New York Times in 1998 that construction of the US 7 Expressway would keep traffic off local roads, thereby preserving towns and controlling sprawl. In contrast, if the existing route were to be widened, more traffic would be forced onto residential streets during construction. The committee also cited ConnDOT statistics that traffic volumes along the existing two-lane US 7, which now averages 30,000 vehicles per day (AADT), would rise to 45,000 vehicles a day by 2015. More recently, advocates have supported construction of the US 7 Expressway as an emergency evacuation route.
In the 2000's, the Southwest Region Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Connecticut Transportation Strategy Board voted to keep the US 7 Expressway between Norwalk and Danbury on their respective long-range construction plans. Congressman James Maloney (D-Waterbury) also supported construction of "Super 7" as controlled-access parkway.
This 2000 aerial photo shows the northern terminus of the US 7 Expressway at Grist Mill Road in Norwalk. The right-of-way for the expressway extension continues north along a wooded area paralleling the MTA Metro-North Danbury line. (Photo by Greg Amy.)
A NEW "3di" FOR FAIRFIELD COUNTY: The proposed "Super 7" between Norwalk and Danbury should be constructed as a four-lane expressway, with provisions for a future expansion to six lanes. The expressway, designed for through traffic between Norwalk and Danbury, should be designated as Interstate 284, connecting I-95 with I-84. (Non-chargeable mileage may be used for the Interstate designation, as has been done in other states.)
The new I-284 will keep through traffic off parallel US 7 (which should be designated as a historic corridor), as well as off local streets. It should be built to reflect the latest advances in safety, environmentally sound construction and parkway-like design, as practiced along I-476 ("Blue Route") in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. Mass transit interfaces such as park-and-ride lots should be provided. Finally, a linear park with multi-use paths should be integrated into the design of I-284, as was done in the early Robert Moses parkways.
Barbara Quincy, chairwoman of the Committee for the Extension of Route 7, summarized the pro-highway position in this September 18, 1999 editorial that appeared in The Hour newspaper of Norwalk as follows:
The growing realization that extending the new Route 7 through Wilton northward is the way to go, is best evidenced by the creation of a new group that is promoting just such plan: the Committee for the Extension of Route 7.
It is assumed that Wilton has always been opposed to the extension of the highway, but back when planning first began, one of its ardent supporters was the late Vincent Tito, then first selectmen. Over the years, various groups have formed to carry out opposition to the highway and then to fade as members moved out of town.
One of the problems in building a new highway in an area which as been developed is the acquisition of property. It is not only costly, but also disruptive to homeowners and businesses. The right-of-way for the proposed limited-access highway has been established for years, and all or most of the land acquired by the state. On the other hand, the widening of certain sections of the old highway will require taking some business properties and historic homes. Even if this widening is done, the traffic picture will not be improved.
It is always easier to raise the opposition to such a project; supporters tend to be reluctant to subject themselves to the scorn of the other side. We have supported the new highway since it was first conceived and remain committed to its construction. It may not make it all the way to Danbury, but each added mile will help ease traffic congestion. We have also supported increased rail services on the Danbury branch, but even a major expansion of that service will not make a major dent in unclogging the old highway, with its many businesses and side roads. If you don't think that's a problem, just try to make a left turn against oncoming traffic during rush hour. It's a death-defying act.
You cannot deny the heavy traffic on the old road puts a strain on alternate routes through Wilton, sending a lot of through traffic down residential streets. We understand it would take a sea change to alter the positions of the present Wilton administration and the state Department of Transportation, but we must try. We applaud the new group, which we hope will counter the opposition by informing the public of the many benefits of extending the highway.
SOURCES: "Connecticut Acts To Move Route 7," The New York Times (10/12/1961); Regional Highways: Status Report, Tri-State Transportation Commission (1962); Transportation 1985: A Regional Plan, Tri-State Transportation Commission (1966); Connecticut Highway Needs, Connecticut Highway Department (1967); Planning for the Future, Connecticut Highway Department (1968); "Meskill Scarps Merritt Parkway Plans" by Michael Knight, The New York Times (12/08/1973); "Connecticut Road Builders Outflank Environmentalists" by Michael Knight, The New York Times (8/30/1974); "Report Asserts Fairfield Needs No New Expressways for Years" by Michael Knight, The New York Times (2/13/1975); Maintaining Mobility, Tri-State Regional Planning Commission (1975); "Relocation of US Route 7, Norwalk to Danbury, Administrative Action Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and Connecticut Department of Transportation (1978); "Connecticut Journal" by Matthew L. Wald, The New York Times (7/27/1980); "Tolls on Route 7 Expressway: Feasibility Study," Connecticut Department of Transportation (1981); "The Route 7-Route 202 Corridor, Brookfield to New Milford: Environmental Impact Evaluation," Connecticut Department of Transportation (1988); "Building the 'Super 7' Expressway in Connecticut" by Allan Wallis, Harvard University-Kennedy School of Government (1991); "US 7 and Merritt Parkway (CT 15) Interchange Reconstruction: Draft Environmental Impact and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and Connecticut Department of Transportation (1992); "Widening Route 7, From Norwalk to New Milford" by Eleanor Charles, The New York Times (2/23/1997); "Fixing the Commuting Conundrum" by Eric Friedman, Fairfield County Weekly (9/17/1998); "A Wider Road Threatens Landmark In Wilton" by James Lomuscio, The New York Times (10/04/1998); "Road to Ruin: Super 7 Expressway," Friends of the Earth (1999); "New Road Plan Excludes Super 7" by Kathy Ann Gobin, The Danbury News-Times (3/18/2000); "Route 7 Bypass Sparks Concern" by Martin Schneider, The Danbury News-Times (6/21/2000); "State, Town Work Together To Improve Route 7 Traffic" by Joseph Spector, The Danbury News-Times (6/23/2000); "DOT Snagged Bypass Plan" by Martin Schneider, The Danbury News-Times (7/08/2000); "Riding Instead of Driving: Editorial Reply" by Jim Cameron, News 12-Connecticut (7/26/2000); "Judge Criticizes End of Route 7 Connector" by David Gurliacci, The Stamford Advocate (7/31/2000); "Build It, They've Already Come" by Tom Dryden, The Wilton Villager (11/27/2000); "Route 7 Bypass Price Jumps Up by $50 Million" by Martin Schneider, The Danbury News-Times (3/17/2001); "Untying the Route 7 Gordian Knot" by Jim Maloney, The Danbury News-Times (5/18/2001); "Poll Shows Support for Building I-95 Deck" by Jonathan Lucas, The Stamford Advocate (10/14/2002); "Draft Report of the Working Group on the Movement of Goods," Connecticut Transportation Strategy Board (2002); "End of the Road for Route 7 Connector Terminus" by Matt Breslow, The Norwalk Advocate (6/12/2003); "Concern Over Endangered Turtle Holding Up Road Project," The Danbury News-Times (5/18/2005); "Lawsuit Filed To Block $98 Million Road Project," The Greenwich Time (6/01/2005); "A Highway Hazard Will Be Blasted Away" by Jeff Holtz, The New York Times (7/17/2005); "Bypass Gets Green Light" by Mark Langlois, The Danbury News-Times (9/26/2006); "Spirits High at Rally Backing Super 7" by Tim Stelloh, The Greenwich Time (2/12/2007); "State Will Unveil Plans for Route 7 Interchange" by Jonathan Lucas, The Norwalk Advocate (2/15/2008); "Route 7 Dispute Settled" by Chris Gosier, The Norwalk Advocate (3/17/2008); Committee for the Extension of Route 7; Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials; Erich Bachman; Paul Cuni; Don Heibeck; Jay Hogan; Neil Kelly; James Lin; Scott Oglesby; Dan Pagliaro; Mike Petrucci; Barbara Quincy; Alexander Svirsky.
US 7 and I-284 shields by Ralph Herman. Lightpost by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.