The Merritt Parkway trail: An old idea that makes even more sense now
Published 1:06 am, Friday, October 30, 2009
I remember the night I first learned how to ride a bicycle. We were visiting my grandparents for one of our typical family gatherings -- lots of aunts, uncles and cousins. As evening fell and the adults moved indoors, I remained outside, determined to succeed at my efforts to ride without training wheels. By the time it was dark, I had mastered the balancing act and begun my life as a bicyclist.
Since that night in my grandparents` driveway, I have enjoyed many miles and moments on my bicycles. From the blue banana seat one-speed to my current 21-speed, I have taken advantage of what bicycling has to offer.
While living in the Northwest, I experienced firsthand a culture that supported and celebrated bicycling as both a recreational pastime and a viable means of travel. For almost two years I commuted to work via bicycle at all times of day and night -- headlights, neon clothing, panniers and all.
That bike commute and the hours I spent touring were made possible by communities like Seattle that are, according to Seattle`s Department of Transportation Web site, committed to, "Facilitating bicycling as a viable transportation choice (and) providing access to healthful recreational opportunities."
Last week in Stamford, the Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA), East Coast Greenway Alliance (ECGA) and the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance (MPTA) gathered an impressive array of speakers to discuss the creation of a Merritt Parkway Trail. Attendees included professors, advocates, regional planners and hikers and bikers themselves, all interested in making their vision a reality.
The proposed multi-user trail would run along the entire 37.5-mile stretch of the Merritt Parkway, allowing not only commuter and recreational bicyclists, but also hikers, joggers, rollerbladers and those in wheelchairs the opportunity to enjoy the Merritt Parkway from an entirely different vantage point. Imagine a relaxing ride or stroll rather than the typical experience of either congestion or Autobahn-type speeding. The Merritt Parkway Trail would serve as a link in the proposed East Coast Greenway, stretching from Maine to Florida.
The idea of a Merritt Parkway trail is as old as the parkway itself. More than 70 years ago, a group of Fairfield businessmen were instrumental in the creation of legislation that allowed for a parallel trail to be created when the Merritt Parkway was constructed. Intended for use as a bridle trial, it was made up of "old woods roads, surveyors` lines, footpaths and logging trails," according to a 1947 Merritt Highway Commission document. Today the advocates involved are interested in bringing that vision to the present.
At last week`s summit, DOT deputy commissioner Al Martin and the new head of the DEP, Amey Marrella, noted that cooperation and collaboration with local municipalities and community groups was essential to the trail`s creation. They, and others, were clear about the importance of a vision, a clearly set forth plan for bicyclists and pedestrians. Our community needs to create a plan specific to Fairfield.
Whether it is an appreciation of historic bridges or a discussion of roadway expansion and how it impacts the economy and our environment, the Merritt Parkway has been the subject of much recent conversation. Let`s add the Merritt Parkway Trail to these conversations. Commissioner Marrella urged all of us to speak with our state and local representatives to advocate for this visionary project. She quoted FDR, who once said in response to a proposal, "I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it." Marrella`s words are an invitation to the residents of this state to advocate on behalf of a trail that provides benefits ranging from improved air quality to reduced congestion, preservation of open space and safe recreation.
Many families I know are afraid to take their children out to ride on Fairfield`s busy streets. A Merritt Parkway Trail would create an infrastructure that allows families, from an early age, to develop the skills necessary to safely venture out onto the roadways. Perhaps then, children and adults alike, will feel more comfortable with the idea of a bike ride to work, the train station or the bus stop.
According to America Bikes, bicyclists and pedestrians make 10 percent of all trips in the United States, yet less that 2 percent of all federal transportation funding is allocated for these users. With rising oil prices, many drivers have been forced to examine alternatives. Now is the time to begin to make this alternative a reality.
The Merritt Parkway Trail is an amazing opportunity to expand our transportation options, to enhance our recreational opportunities and to achieve the desired objectives of the Merritt Parkway`s visionary planners. Much has changed since the days those Fairfield businessmen pushed for a parkway trail. Some of these changes, increased congestion, poor air quality and the rising rate of childhood obesity, all call for an even greater effort in making the Merritt Parkway Trail a reality for today and the years to come.
Cristin McCarthy Vahey is the deputy moderator of Fairfield`s Representative Town Meeting.