This 1999 photo shows the southbound Wilbur Cross Parkway in Wallingford. Unlike the more bucolic Merritt Parkway, which continues the route of CT 15 to the southwest, the Wilbur Cross Parkway comes closer to the pre- and early-Interstate era expressways in its design. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

FROM THE MERRITT TO THE WILBUR CROSS: In the 1930's, officials at the Connecticut Highway Department planned a statewide network of automobile-only parkways similar in design to the Merritt Parkway then under construction. Because of financial restraints brought on by the Great Depression, this plan was never realized. However, the idea for an extension of the Merritt Parkway from Fairfield County toward New Haven and Hartford gained support almost from the beginning.

For many years, New Haven marked the end of New York commuter rail service, and thereby marked the natural end of the New York metropolitan area. When it opened in 1940, the Merritt Parkway ended in Milford, some 15 miles to the west. Officials in New Haven sought to strengthen academic and other ties to New York City, and hoped that an extension of the parkway would provide the vehicle to do so.

Even before the original Merritt Parkway was completed, highway officials were already planning its extension. The extension gained support from state legislators who sought a faster, more efficient route between Fairfield County and the state capital in Hartford. In 1939, the Connecticut state legislature authorized construction of the parkway extension. The new route was to be named after Wilbur Cross, a former dean of Yale University Law School who as governor oversaw the state's New Deal construction efforts.

The Wilbur Cross Parkway was to be financed by tolls collected on the Merritt Parkway at toll stations in Greenwich and Milford. This part of the proposal incensed residents of Fairfield County, who thought they were paying twice for the Merritt Parkway, once through taxes, and again through tolls.

DEVELOPMENT AND CONSTRUCTION: When the design phase began in 1939, the Wilbur Cross Parkway was envisioned as an extension of the Merritt Parkway from Milford, Connecticut to near Sturbridge, Massachusetts, just north of the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. From there, highway officials in Massachusetts planned an extension of the parkway toward Worcester and Boston.

Construction of the Wilbur Cross Parkway began in 1940 near the eastern approach to the Housatonic River (Sikorsky) Bridge in Milford. At this location, a connecting north-south parkway - the Milford Parkway - was constructed to carry traffic between the Merritt-Wilbur Cross parkway complex and US 1. With the onset of World War II, the concomitant imposition of materiel restrictions brought construction to a halt.

Once the war ended, construction of the resumed in earnest. With the completion of the 1,200-foot-long, twin-bore vehicular tunnel under West Rock Park in New Haven, the Wilbur Cross Parkway opened to traffic on November 1, 1949. The Wilbur Cross Parkway proper, which stretches 29 miles from Milford to Meriden, cost $17.5 million to construct. To cover the cost of the parkway, additional tolls in Wallingford and East Hartford (Charter Oak) supplemented the existing Merritt Parkway tolls in Greenwich and Milford.

North and east of Meriden, the Berlin Turnpike and Wilbur Cross Highway were opened in conjunction with the Wilbur Cross Parkway. The following excerpt appeared in
The New York Times when the parkway complex opened:

Completion of the (West Rock) tunnel, started in March 1948, gives Connecticut a continuous express highway, free of traffic lights and grade crossings, extending 90 miles diagonally across the state from Greenwich to Vernon. Bypassing New Haven and other cities of the state, the parkway, which begins at the junction of the Merritt Parkway with New York's Hutchinson River Parkway, will expedite traffic from New York to Boston. New Haven traffic problems will be eased because the through traffic will be off its streets.

However, the new complex did not provide a continuous parkway environment. While the Wilbur Cross Highway between East Hartford and the Connecticut-Massachusetts line (which later became I-84) offered grade separation and controlled access, Berlin Turnpike (US 5 and CT 15) between Meriden and Hartford did not. Most likely, Connecticut highway officials believed that a controlled access parkway would be built parallel to Berlin Turnpike in the future, and that a four-lane, at-grade boulevard would be sufficient in the interim.

COMPARSIONS BETWEEN THE WILBUR CROSS AND MERRITT PARKWAYS: The following comparisons (and contrasts) can be drawn between the Wilbur Cross Parkway and the Merritt Parkway:

  • ROADWAY CONFIGURATION: The Wilbur Cross Parkway features two 24-foot-wide roadways, each with two lanes of capacity, separated by a 20-foot-wide landscaped median. In comparison, the Merritt Parkway features two 26-foot-wide roadways, also with two lanes of capacity, separated by a 22-foot-wide landscaped median. The narrower roadbed, combined with its shorter length (29.0 miles for the Wilbur Cross, 37.5 miles for the Merritt), kept construction and right-of-way acquisition costs down.

  • TOPOGRAPHY: The Wilbur Cross Parkway begins with some hilly vistas in western New Haven County, culminating in the twin-tube tunnel through the red sandstone West Rock ridge. North of the West Rock Tunnel, the terrain flattens out through North Haven, Wallingford and Meriden. In this area, the Wilbur Cross Parkway runs as straight as the railroad configuration that Schuyler Merritt feared (and the designers avoided) on the Merritt Parkway.

  • LANDSCAPING: The Wilbur Cross Parkway ran through more urbanized areas and flat terrain areas than did the Merritt Parkway, and as such, did not provide the landscaping opportunities that the earlier road provided. There are few natural features that shield the Wilbur Cross Parkway from abutting commercial establishments and industrial parks. Due to the austerity of the immediate postwar era, little was spent on additional landscaping features.

  • BRIDGES: George Dunkelberger, the designer of the unique Art Deco bridges built along the Merritt Parkway, was also commissioned for the Wilbur Cross Parkway. There are some outstanding bridges along the route, but these examples are few compared to his earlier work on the Merritt Parkway. Rather, the Wilbur Cross Parkway bridges reflect the efficiency and minimalism - most likely inspired by the austerity - of the postwar era. Indeed, some of Dunkelberger's later works are similar in design to expressway bridges designed between the late 1940's and the 1960's. A total of 43 bridges were constructed on the Wilbur Cross Parkway, compared with 69 bridges on the Merritt Parkway.

One more comparison can be made between the Wilbur Cross and Merritt parkways: both projects were tinged by scandal. In the case of the Wilbur Cross Parkway, the ethical problems were within the Connecticut Highway Department itself: misappropriation of construction funds, misuse of state equipment, billing of private contractors for work already paid for by the state, and other charges. These scandals, which were revealed in the
Bridgeport Sunday Herald on November 30, 1941, led to the removal of highway commissioner William Cox. Ironically, Cox had been named commissioner following the disgraceful exit of John MacDonald in the Merritt Parkway land scandal.

This 1999 photo shows the northbound Wilbur Cross Parkway (CT 15) at the West Rock Tunnel in New Haven. The final section of the parkway to be completed, the vehicular land tunnel is the only one of its type in New England. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

THE WILBUR CROSS PARKWAY, YESTERDAY AND TODAY: The Wilbur Cross Parkway received the CT 15 designation in 1948. (Before 1948, the proposed parkway had the unposted legislative designation 1A.) The CT 15 designation continues south along the Merritt Parkway to Greenwich, and south along Berlin Turnpike to East Hartford.

The Wilbur Cross Parkway continues the sequential exit numbering scheme of the Merritt Parkway north to Meriden, where the last numbered exit is EXIT 68 (I-691 and CT 66). In Newington, the controlled-access highway (CT 15) picks up again, and exit numbers start at EXIT 89, to provide for continuous exit numbering when the Wilbur Cross Parkway through Berlin was completed. The exit numbering continues from EXIT 89 across the Charter Oak Bridge, and concludes at the present I-84. Until 1984, when the I-86 designation was changed back to I-84 along the route of the original Wilbur Cross Highway, exit numbers continued up to EXIT 106 at the Connecticut-Massachusetts line. (The exits were renumbered upon the re-designation.)

During the mid-1960's, the northern terminus of the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Meriden was reconfigured to intersect with I-91, I-691 and CT 66. In the 1970's, the Mount Carmel Connector (CT 40), an expressway connecting I-91 with US 5 and CT 10 in the North Haven area, was constructed over the Wilbur Cross Parkway, but no freeway-to-parkway ramps were built. This is the only instance in Connecticut where there is no such connection.

During the 1970's and 1980's, as the character of the Wilbur Cross Parkway shifted from scenic byway to a commuter alternative for I-95 and I-91, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) made a number of safety improvements, including the addition of acceleration and deceleration lanes and steel guard rails. The improvements were made to accommodate parkway speeds of up to 55 miles per hour.

In 2006, ConnDOT completed a five-year project to replace the old four-lane, steel-grid deck Housatonic (Sikorsky) Bridge. The new $84 million Sikorsky Bridge, a five-span structure consisting of a combination of simple and continuous girders with composite concrete decks, has six 12-foot-wide travel lanes (three in each direction), 12-foot-wide left and right shoulders in each direction, and a multi-use path that may accommodate the proposed Merritt Parkway Trail. The new bridge was built in two stages. The first stage of construction was completed on November 24, 2003, and all traffic was diverted onto four narrow makeshift lanes on the new northbound span. This cleared the way for the demolition of the old Sikorsky Bridge, and the completion of the southbound span by mid-2006.

At EXIT 64 (Wallingford-Music Theatre) in Wallingford, ConnDOT plans an interchange reconstruction project that will include new ramps, acceleration and deceleration lanes, and local intersection improvements. No construction dates have been given for this project.

According to ConnDOT, the Wilbur Cross Parkway carries approximately 50,000 vehicles per day (AADT).

THE HARVARD-YALE RIVALRY TAKES IT TO THE ROADS: Leo Auray, a frequent contributor to nycroads.com and misc.transport.road, submitted the following about the Derby Avenue (CT 34) overpass in West Haven:

The Derby Avenue (CT 34) bridge over the Wilbur Cross Parkway is decorated with two shields, those of Yale University and Harvard University. In each direction, the Harvard shield is to the left (over the opposing traffic lanes), while the Yale shield is to the right (over the through traffic lanes). In other words, if you're traveling in the right direction you pass under the Yale shield; if you're going the wrong way, you pass under the Harvard shield. This was almost a secret until the shields were accented with the proper colors about five years ago. Derby Avenue is the main route to downtown New Haven, and the main access road to the Yale campus.

This 1999 photo shows the Wilbur Cross Parkway at the CT 34 (Derby Avenue) overpass in West Haven. No doubt a partisan jab at Harvard University, plaques from Yale University are shown over the southbound ("right-way") lanes, while Harvard plaques are shown over the "wrong-way" lanes. This scheme is reversed northbound. (Photo by Steve Anderson.)

SOURCES: "New Haven Area Traffic Study for the Wilbur Cross Parkway," Connecticut Highway Department (August 1940); "Merritt Road Ready," The New York Times (9/01/1940); "Connecticut Opens an Auto Tunnel, Last Link in Wilbur Cross Parkway," The New York Times (11/02/1949); "New Road Pushed by Connecticut" by Richard H. Parke, The New York Times (8/07/1964); The Merritt Parkway by Bruce Radde, Yale University Press (1993); "Work Begins on Replacement of Sikorsky Memorial Bridge," The Associated Press (5/07/2001); Berger, Lehman Associates; Connecticut Department of Transportation; Leo Auray; Jay Hogan; Francis Peter Lynch; Mike Natale; Scott Oglesby; Alexander Svirsky.

  • CT 15 shield by Barry L. Camp.
  • Wilbur Cross Parkway shield by James Lin.

WILBUR CROSS PARKWAY LINKS:

CURRENT METRO COMMUTE ROAD CONDITIONS:

OFF-SITE EXIT LISTINGS:

  • Wilbur Cross Parkway exit list by Jay Hogan.

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