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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Connecticut Turnpike turns 63 (Part 1)

Trucks enter the Stratford toll plaza on the Connecticut Turnpike (I-95). (Photo: Wayne Ratzenberger/Connecticut Post)

Historically, Connecticut is part of New England as well as a tri-state area with New York and New Jersey, which together make up metropolitan New York City. It is the third smallest state by area, the 29th most populous and the fourth most densely populated of the 50 states.

As is the case with a number of other northeastern states, it has a turnpike. Unlike most of the other turnpikes in the region, however, it no longer charges tolls to use the highway.

The Connecticut Turnpike opened on January 2, 1958 (63 years ago this past Sunday). It runs along the coast from the Byram River in Greenwich to East Lyme. There it heads north, becoming Interstate 395 (I-395). Interstate 95 (I-95) continues on and ends at the Rhode Island border. 

A 1958 Connecticut Turnpike sign. (Photo:
A 1958 Connecticut Turnpike sign. (Photo:


Beginning in the colonial era, the Boston Post Road served as the main artery between Boston and New York City. In addition to serving as the primary north-south overland link through New England, the Boston Post Road became the main commercial street in many of the towns and cities along its route. The road was designated U.S. Route 1 (US 1) by the Federal Highway Act of 1921.

The Boston Post Road marker (rounded stone in foreground) is commemorated by the sign. (Photo: New England Historical Society)
The Boston Post Road marker (rounded stone in foreground) is commemorated by the sign. (Photo: New England Historical Society)

As car and truck traffic grew in the 1920s, local and inter-city traffic clogged the two-lane road in many places along its route. By the end of the decade, 25,000 vehicles per day (twice its design capacity) were using US 1 in Connecticut’s Fairfield and New Haven counties.

To relieve congestion on the Post Road, Connecticut’s Highway Commissioner proposed three alternatives:

  • Further widening of the Post Road, with new bypasses constructed around major population centers
  • Construction of a new road further inland
  • Construction of a new road exclusively for trucks, running parallel to the Post Road and the New York-New Haven railroad

The first option was not used. The second option was constructed, and became the Merritt Parkway. The controlled-access, four-lane scenic parkway open only to passenger cars opened in 1940. The third option was modified to a limited-access highway open to both cars and commercial vehicles. However, its construction was postponed until after World War II.

Even before the Merritt Parkway was opened, however, highway officials realized the need for a new express route for commercial vehicles. The Regional Plan Association proposed building a regional network of expressways in 1936 to supplement the existing parkway network. These expressways would have the same access control features as the current parkways, but would be open to all vehicles. One of the routes recommended (which was the precursor to I-95) was to run from New York City to New Haven and then to Boston. It was planned to ease congestion on US 1 and the Merritt Parkway.

A Merritt Parkway sign in the 1940s. (Photo:
A Merritt Parkway sign in the 1940s. (Photo:

President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the construction of a 40,000-mile system of interstate and defense highways across the United States in 1944. (Obviously none of these roads would be built until the conclusion of World War II. Also, no funds were provided for construction costs.) Most of the highways were planned as improvements to existing U.S. routes. The plan called for the routes to be upgraded with median separation of opposing lanes, grade separations of cross traffic and railroad crossings, and interchanges. As part of the 1944 federal highway legislation, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR; the predecessor to today’s Federal Highway Administration) selected the US 1 corridor from Maine to Florida for improvement.

Also in 1944, the Connecticut Highway Commission released plans for a proposed expressway from Westport to New York City. The route in the state’s proposal was very similar to today’s I-95. The Connecticut state legislature directed the state highway commissioner in 1947 to study the location of routes along Long Island Sound.

The route of U.S. Route 1, from Florida to Maine. (Image: wikipedia)
The route of U.S. Route 1, from Florida to Maine. (Image: wikipedia)

Limited construction during the war and afterward

To help ease traffic congestion, the Connecticut Highway Department built bypasses along the route of US 1. Among them were bypasses in: New London (constructed 1943); Old Saybrook (constructed 1948); East Haven (constructed 1951); Darien (constructed 1954); and West Haven (constructed 1954). The bypasses were later incorporated into the route of I-95.

The Cape Cod Expressway

In a multi-state proposal, the governors of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts convened in 1953 to support plans for a 260-mile expressway to link New York City with Provincetown, Massachusetts (which is located at the eastern tip of Cape Cod). The $75 million, four-to-six lane expressway (sections of which were planned to be toll roads), was to be “the most direct and shortest highway route between the present and potentially major urban-industrial and recreational concentrations, and between significant military installations of the shore route area.”

In addition to the current route of I-95 through Connecticut, the route of the Cape Cod Expressway would have continued along RI 138, RI 24, I-195 and US 6. With the exception of parts of the RI 138 and RI 24 expressways (which were included in a later I-895 proposal), much of the route was eventually built.

Construction on the Connecticut Turnpike is shown. (Photo:
Construction on the Connecticut Turnpike is shown. (Photo:

Turnpike construction

Although the Eisenhower administration was moving forward with plans for the Interstate Highway System (IHS), that was not passed/financed by Congress until 1956.

Connecticut’s state legislature authorized construction of the “Greenwich-Killingly Expressway” in 1954. It was to be a 129-mile-long, controlled-access tolled highway along the US 1 corridor that would connect the New York metropolitan area with Rhode Island. The route would run east-northeast along Long Island Sound from Greenwich to East Lyme (which is now the route of I-95), then northeast to Killingly (now the route of I-395 and CT 695).

Under the terms of the 1954 legislation, the State Highway Commission was authorized to issue construction bonds, which would be repaid by tolls and other income. Construction of the highway began on January 17, 1955 in three separate locations – Norwalk, Old Saybrook and West Haven. The highway also had a new name when construction began – the Connecticut Turnpike.

Construction on a section of the Connecticut Turnpike. (Photo: Hopkinton Historical Association)
Construction on a section of the Connecticut Turnpike. (Photo: Hopkinton Historical Association)

The Connecticut Turnpike was the state’s largest public works project of the post-war era, and designers from 26 engineering firms assisted the state’s highway engineers. Unfortunately, acquiring rights-of-way in the heavily populated state was a very slow process that dictated the pattern for the design and construction of the turnpike. Contractors were forced to build one small section before moving on to another. That meant the turnpike project was made up of 45 smaller projects in 1956, and 78 smaller projects in 1957. In addition, several short bypasses that had been previously built were incorporated into the construction.

The turnpike was designed and built for a speed of 60 miles per hour. It was built with six lanes from the New York State border to East Haven, and with four lanes between East Haven and Killingly. With a few local exceptions, the turnpike remains the same today. Like most of the pre-interstate highway era turnpikes, steel guardrails in a narrow median separated the two sides of the turnpike. (The guardrails were later replaced with concrete barriers.) The turnpike was built to carry 90,000 to 115,000 vehicles on its six-lane sections, and 50,000 vehicles on its four-lane sections.

Connecticut Governor Abraham Ribicoff (right) stands with State Highway Commissioner Newman Hargraves (left) at the western end of the Connecticut Turnpike. (Photo:
Connecticut Governor Abraham Ribicoff (right) stands with State Highway Commissioner Newman Hargraves (left) at the western end of the Connecticut Turnpike. (Photo:

Opening of the Connecticut Turnpike

On January 2, 1958, all but three miles of the Connecticut Turnpike were formally opened to traffic by Governor Abraham Ribicoff (who later served in the U.S. Senate). Ribbon-cutting ceremonies were held in the morning at the turnpike’s western end in Greenwich. Following the Greenwich ceremony, Ribicoff led a motorcade that traveled 128 miles to a similar event in Killingly, on the Rhode Island border.  

At the first ceremony, which was attended by six former governors of the state, Ribicoff hailed the turnpike as a great construction achievement. He also commended the Connecticut State Highway Department for “meeting an impossible timetable” to complete the expressway on schedule. Ribicoff also remarked about the “immense benefit” the Connecticut Turnpike would provide for motorists and called the new highway “a road of national importance.” He also emphasized the turnpike’s safety features, stating, “The most modern highway construction methods contributing to safe driving have been engineered into this road. Now it is up to the public to take proper care in driving so that accidents can be kept to a minimum.”

When it opened, the Connecticut Turnpike was widely identified as serving a longer stretch of urban and suburban communities than any other modern highway. The turnpike (which in 1985 was officially renamed the Governor John Davis Lodge Turnpike) now carries I-95 road signs between Greenwich and East Lyme and I-395 signage between East Lyme and Plainfield. It has short overlaps with US 1 from Old Saybrook to Old Lyme and Connecticut Route 2A from Montville to Norwich. State Road 695 continues the Connecticut Turnpike to Killingly.

Cars and trucks use the Connecticut Turnpike in 1992. (Photo:
Cars and trucks use the Connecticut Turnpike in 1992.

Ten months after most of the Connecticut Turnpike opened, its western-most three miles, which connected the Stamford area with the New England Thruway, opened to traffic. This section included bridges over the Mianus and Byram rivers. The 15.5-mile, $91.6 million New England Thruway also opened in October 1958. A new, nonstop route from the Bronx to Rhode Island had been created. And because construction of the IHS was occurring across the nation, most of the new route was unified under the Interstate 95 designation.

The original cost to build the Connecticut Turnpike was $464 million (in 1950s dollars). The construction costs were repaid over time by tolls collected at eight barrier stations along the turnpike’s route. The first toll for passenger cars for the turnpike’s 129-mile route was $2.10 (or 1.65 cents per mile). To supplement toll revenue the State Highway Commission earned concession income from the turnpike’s 14 service areas, which provided automotive services and restaurants like those found on other turnpikes in the region.

Workers stand in front of a Howard Johnson's restaurant on the Connecticut Turnpike. (Photo:
Workers stand in front of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant on the Connecticut Turnpike. (Photo:

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.