Plans for Merritt Parkway Bike Trail Generates Debate

Bike trail controversy isn't just for New York City residents. That controversy is also brewing north of the city. Some residents living in eight upscale communities along Connecticut's Merritt Parkway are debating the pros and cons of putting a bike lane along the northbound side of the scenic, wooded highway.

The trail would stretch 37.5 miles along the Merritt, the "Queen of Parkways," from the New York state line in old money Greenwich to the Sikorsky Bridge and the Housatonic River in Stratford.  Along the way, it would pass through the Fairfield County hamlets of New Canaan, Westport, Fairfield and Trumbull, as well as the busy communities of Stamford and Norwalk.

Outdoor enthusiasts have pressed for a Merritt Parkway bike trail for years. The highway is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It has 69 original bridges, designed by George L. Dunkelberger, which are decorated with grapevines and classic urns, winged wheels and crenellated parapets. No two are alike.

"As you're driving by at expressway speeds, it's very difficult to get an appreciation for the parkway," said William Britnell, a principal engineer at Connecticut's Department of Transportation, who's overseeing the study.

In 2010, the Connecticut Department of Transportation applied for more than $1 million in federal money from the National Scenic Byways Program to fund a bike trail along the Merritt, which was first recommended in 1993. 

Britnell said it took that long for transportation officials to decide to stop talking about what a bike trail might look like, and start plotting it out.

But in local papers and blogs, and at several recent public "workshops" on the proposal, residents along the highway have voiced concerns.  They say the Parkway wasn't designed to be a, well, park.  People whose properties butt up against the Merritt worry that the removal of trees for the bike path would ruin their privacy and reduce what is now an important noise buffer. There is also concern about who will maintain and clean up the trail. 

Britnell said it won't be the state DOT.  It doesn't have the money.

"We are struggling just to maintain the roads and facilities that we have now," said Britnell.  Typically, towns are proposing these trails and they're the ones who are usually willing to take on the maintenance."

Britnell acknowledged that the towns are also having funding issues and said they will be unable to maintain the trail. “We have to look at alternatives, whether it be public-private partnerships, perhaps even volunteers," he said.

Other issues to consider: where bike enthusiasts would park their cars while they enjoy the trail, and how the trail would navigate across several busy roads, including Lake Avenue and Round Hill Road in Greenwich.

The next public workshop on the feasibility of the bike trail is Tuesday, May 1, in Westport.