Multi-use trail pondered along Merritt Parkway from Greenwich to Stratford

What would you say to the possibility of a 10-foot-wide, multi-use trail for cyclists, joggers and walkers that parallels the Merritt Parkway for 37.5 miles from Stratford to Greenwich, potentially someday linking with similar trails all along the East Coast?

The State Department of Transportation (DOT) recently revealed a conceptual layout, and, according to the DOT’s project manager for this hypothetical trail study, Michael Calabrese, “Depending on your perspective, the concept may appear very feasible or impossible.”

The DOT is neutral on the idea, Calabrese said.

A Merritt Parkway multi-use trail could potentially intersect with a trail along the Housatonic River in Stratford near Sikorsky Aircraft, close to the Shelton border.

Grants funds look at concept

The Merritt Parkway multi-use trail currently is nowhere near waiting to be built or funded, although trail advocates have suggested it for years.

The transportation department agreed to study what a trail might look like and require — and thanks to a $1.3 million grant from the National Scenic Byway Organization, has spent the last two years doing so.

That included conducting a number of local workshops to gather input from the public. Transportation personnel also hiked the aforementioned 37.5 miles along the Merritt and catalogued everything they came across — forest, wetlands, waterways and various types of roads the trail would need to somehow cross.

Parkway has wide right-of-way

The Merritt Parkway right-of-way, the state land on which limited-access Route 15 is built, is 300 feet wide.

There is 55 to 60 feet of land to the parkway’s north (next to the southbound lanes), 70 to 80 feet of land containing the paved roads, and another 165 feet or more of land on the south side (next to the northbound lanes).

The widest portion to the highway’s south is what is in play — a 10-foot wide trail corridor would make its way through that swath of land, according to the DOT concept.

Many crossings along the route

The trail that’s been envisioned would involve simple, paved pathway; raised boardwalk portions in places like steep grades and wetlands; and sections with retaining wall and benches.

The trail would require crossings of various kinds, including simple crosswalks over typical streets, signaled crosswalks, and sometimes complex, costly installations such as tunnels and bridges to get over, under or ease difficult grades, roads and waterways.

Any necessary tunnels, walls and so on could be made to match the Merritt’s historic bridges and underpasses, the study leaders announced, which would preserve or even enhance the parkway’s aesthetic but undoubtedly also add to cost. The trail itself could also be fenced in and screened.

Early in the process

Putting things in perspective, Calabrese said that if A-Z is the process of taking this trail from an idea to a reality, the process is now around step D. Overall, he said, the Merritt trail would be 85% at-grade, 7% benched retaining wall, and 8% bridge and tunnel areas.

Also, while this trail — should it ever be built — could offer an alternative to motorized travel, “no one should be thinking they’d get on a bike and just ride from Greenwich to Stratford,” Calabrese said. “You’d have to stop along the way many times.”

Could cost up to $250 million

The largest hurdle to this trail is its cost. DOT estimates that it would cost $200 million to $250 million to build, which would be spread over multiple years and would come from state transportation money.

The state would assume capital maintenance, such as inspecting and maintaining structures. Routine maintenance, such as cleaning up litter and removing fallen tree limbs, would be left up to respective municipalities and private entities.

The DOT estimates maintenance for the entire 37.5 miles would run about $57,000 annually, split among the parkway towns of Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Norwalk, Wilton, Westport, Fairfield, Trumbull and Stratford.

Aesthetics and practicality

A Merritt bike trail “would be faced with the continuous din of traffic,” said George Maranis of New Canaan, a board member of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, which does not support this trail concept.

“There is a section of the Waveny Park trails [in New Canaan] that goes along the Merritt, and when I’m on it, I can’t wait to get off it and get back to the park,” Maranis said.

Derek Bennett, a member of the New Canaan Utilities Commission, pointed out that most of Connecticut’s roadways and rights-of-way travel north-south, and building long trails of this kind from east to west, town by town and street by street, is unlikely.

“You need east-to-west federal or state rights-of-way, and there are very few of those,” Bennett said. “The Merritt is one of them, so you have to consider it.”