Chapter 4 DOT History



In 1923, John A. Macdonald was appointed the new Commissioner of the Highway Department by Governor Templeton, remaining until 1938. From Putnam, Macdonald had a civil engineering degree from Valparaiso University, Indiana. Prior to his appointment, Commissioner Macdonald had been a concrete salesman and, from 1917-1923, had served as a deputy commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Macdonald's term can be characterized as one of further modernization. Roads were resurfaced, straightened and repaired, while major planning and construction were undertaken for the new east-west Merritt Parkway.

Immediately, Commissioner Macdonald called for improvement and completion of the existing highway system because of "tremendously increasing highway traffic." During this period, railroads continued to decline in importance and automobiles increasingly took their place. In fact, there were 250,000 cars registered in the state. Macdonald called for the expenditure of between $35 and $40 million. At a cost of $40,000 per mile for roadway improvements, the almost $9 million a year that the state received from gasoline tax and automobile fees would provide less than half the funds needed to improve almost 1,500 miles of roadway over the course of five years, even with another $2.5 million in aid coming from the federal government.


During the course of roadway reconstruction, visible property boundaries such as ditches and stone walls were often filled and/or removed. To ensure that the state laid proper claim to its rights of way, in 1923 the Highway Department established boundaries for all state highways. In 1925, formal attention was given to the needs of roadside stabilization and beautification. The Landscape Bureau, later known as the Bureau of Roadside Development, was established to perform tree care, erosion control work, and maintenance of roadside pincnic areas for which Connecticut was well known. Uniform sign installation for state highways was provided by law in 1927, under the responsibility of the Division of Highway Control. In addition, efforts were made to standardize bridge design, culminating in completion of a set of design standards in 1930.

Under Commissioner established boundaries for all state highways. In 1925, formal attention was given to the needs of roadside stabilization and beautification. The Landscape Bureau, later known as the Bureau of Roadside Development, was established to perform tree care, erosion control work, and maintenance of roadside picnic areas for which Connecticut was well known. Uniform sign installation for state highways was provided Macdonald, many roadway standards and classifications were established. He called for 100-foot rights of way for all new construction, with a central landscaped median, flanked by a public utility right-of-way; elimination of grade crossings; and improved sight lines. He further proposed that the state aid road system be made more definitive so that the towns could not keep changing their designated roads. Macdonald further developed a four-tiered system of highway classification related to highway loads. Only those roads that needed to be designed for heavy loads were so built; other roads could be built more cheaply, yet provide adequate support for light trucks and passenger vehicles.

In 1926, at the behest of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), Connecticut elected to participate in a route numbering system for interstate routes that would facilitate interstate travel via the shortest routes on the best roads. Under this system Connecticut designated certain trunk roads as U.S. Routes 1, 5, 6, and 7. In 1935, Routes 44 and 202 were added.


Several minor changes were made in the organization of the Department. The field construction engineers and their divisions were reduced from seven to five, located in Hartford, New Haven, Norwich, New Milford, and Winsted. Eleven supervisors and depots of repair were maintained, but their locations were changed to Hartford (2), West Willington, Putnam, Norwich, Deep River, New Haven, Norwalk, Naugatuck, Norfolk, and New Milford.

This period can also be characterized as an era of further expansion and professional development of the Department. In 1925, the Materials Testing Laboratory was founded in Portland. Under the direction of chemist Frank Flood, the laboratory's staff of six performed physical testing of all the types of materials that go into making a highway, including concrete, gravel, cement, and metals.


The increasing dominance of the automobile in American life in the 1920s was the beginning of a long decline for the trolley. The trolley no longer offered the greatest individual mobility, especially since trolleys had to give way to long lines of automobiles now sharing the public roadways. Financial burdens were also building up because industry regulations would not allow an increase in the nickel trolley ride, which had nearly become an American institution.

For those who did not own an automobile, there were still plenty of chances to travel in a car instead of the trolley. Jitneys (jitney was slang for nickel), which were private automobiles with a driver for hire, the forerunners of the taxicab, flocked around trolley stations to convey passengers to their destinations. In Connecticut, taxi cab and livery services began being regulated by the Public Utilities Commission in 1929 and 1933, respectively. By the 1930s, the trolley industry was deeply troubled, followed by its final demise in the 1940s and early 1950s.


As early as 1919, the Department recognized that it could not keep up with the dramatic increases in traffic along the state's main trunk line, the Boston Post Road, also known as U.S. Route 1. As the primary link between the Port of New York and Connecticut's major industrial centers, the road was clogged with both slow-moving local motorists and long distance truck traffic, making for a dangerous mix. After several widening efforts proved to no avail, the Department began to seek alternatives to relieve congestion. In 1923, Commissioner Macdonald proposed three alternatives: further widening; a truck road running along the coast adjacent to the rail lines; or a new road located 20 miles inland.

There were major forces behind improving traffic in Fairfield County -- wealthy estate owners, businessmen and local politicians. They found their voice in the Fairfield County Planning Association and began to lobby for a "Parallel Post Road" that would remove high speed passenger traffic from Route 1. They advocated a slightly inland route that would pass through mostly undeveloped property and strongly advocated a parkway type of roadway. Further impetus for creating such a road also came from New York State's announcement of plans to build several parkways in adjacent Westchester County. By 1925, the proposal won the endorsement of Governor Wilbur Cross, and in 1927, legislation was passed providing for a road from Bridgeport to Greenwich. In 1931, an appropriation of $1 million for its construction was approved.

In mapping out the road, Commissioner Macdonald and his planners adopted a 300-foot wide right-of- way in order to provide for possible expansion as well as proper separation from the nearby houses. The 150-foot wide roadway was built on the north side of the total right-of-way. This was to be a multi-lane road. Since the road was meant to be a high-speed express connection through Fairfield county, there were to be no at-grade crossings or traffic signals, necessitating the use of 69 bridges for underpasses or overpasses at roadway crossings, railroad crossings and stream fordings. Highway access was to be limited to a specified number of entrances and exits, a relatively novel concept for 1930. The road was to cross hilly terrain, and many cuts and fills were envisioned to even out the dramatic landscape of "back country" Fairfield County.

The Fairfield County Planning Association and Congressman Schuyler Merritt, after whom the road would be named, pushed for a road that would enhance the beauty of the county, ensuring the creation of a well-landscaped parkway that would follow the topography of the land. Landscape, bridges and highway were designed in concert to create a delightful driving experience. The Department's landscape architects, led by Thayer Chase, created a park-like setting 38 miles long. They emphasized the use of hardy native plants that required little maintenance and would provide fall color and spring flowers. Bridge designs were under the supervision of architect George Dunkelberger. He created 69 Art Deco style masterpieces that served as highly ornate theatrical arches framing and heightening the experience of driving through nature.

In 1931, the Merritt Highway Commission was formed to oversee the project and in April of that year the first parcel of land for the highway was purchased. In 1934, construction on the highway had begun and Westchester County announced plans to build a connector linking the Hutchinson River Parkway to the Merritt. The project was short of funds, so in 1935 the legislature granted Fairfield County authority to issue $15 million in bonds to complete the Merritt. The first section of the parkway opened on June 29, 1938, providing a link from the New York State Line to Norwalk.

In 1939, the Highway Department was authorized to collect tolls on the Merritt in order to finance construction of the Wilbur Cross Parkway, then being planned to extend from the Merritt Parkway to Hartford. The first toll was collected on June 21, 1939. By 1940, the Parkway reached its terminus at the Housatonic River bridge and formally opened as Connecticut's first parkway on Labor Day, 1940. On completion, it was considered one of the most beautiful highways in America and stood as a model for future roadway construction. Today, the Merritt Parkway is a state scenic road and has gained a place on the National Register of Historic Places.


The years of the 1920s were years of many changes for the field of aviation. The federal government, years after Connecticut's precedent-setting aeronautical statute (1911), enacted its first aviation law with the passage of the Air Commerce Act of 1926. The act established the Federal Aeronautics Branch (later the Bureau of Air Commerce) in the Department of Commerce. This authority certified pilots and aircraft, developed air navigational facilities, promoted flying safety, and issued flight information. The growing interest in flying led Congress to pass the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 to establish an independent Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), which two years later, took control of the airways.

In Connecticut in the 1920s, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the State Police (part of DMV at the time) shared enforcement responsibilities for Connecticut's aeronautical statute, which had previously been enforced by the Secretary of State. In 1927, the legislature created the Department of Aeronautics to implement the work of the Commission of Aviation, a new regulatory agency. The Commission of Aviation remained the regulatory agency in Connecticut until the formation of the Department of Transportation in 1969, when it became purely advisory, being dissolved around 1973.

The Groton-New London Airport was established as the first state airport in 1929. Originally called Trumbull Airport after Governor Jonathan Trumbull, the airport was taken over by the U.S. Department of Navy during World War II. The Navy built the runways before the state resumed ownership in 1948.


In 1931, with the effect of the Great Depression being felt all over the State, the legislature extended its help and interest to all public roads by appropriating $3 million for the construction and maintenance of local roads. The Town Aid Program, as it has become known, divided money equally among all 169 towns, with the goal that the towns would work to improve the hundreds of miles of dirt roads. The success of the program may be measured by the survey of 1940, which showed less than two percent of the state's rural homes on unimproved roads. In 1941, an appropriation of $1 million per year was made in order to target the two percent (unimproved) roads.

That same year, following the recommendation of a consulting engineering firm, the entire department was reorganized. The Department was divided into five bureaus: Engineering and Construction; Maintenance; Business Administration; Highway Boundaries and Rights of Way; and Roadside Development. Each bureau developed specialized departments for particular areas of expertise. Furthermore, the six division engineers' offices were reduced to four, located at Hartford, New Haven, New Milford and Norwich, while the eleven repair offices were renamed maintenance offices.

With the Great Depression in full force in Connecticut, the mid-1930s were characterized as an era of great road building and construction of other public works, since these were public projects that served as a means to employ thousands. The 1934 Federal Aid bill substantially assisted the state in its funding of construction projects. In 1937, the Work Progress Administration constructed the Windham Airport.


In 1935, the state sought to standardize all of its traffic control devices with the formation of the State Traffic Commission (STC), which was comprised of the Commissioner of the Highway Department, the Chief of the State Police, and the Director of the Motor Vehicle Department. The STC developed a uniform system of traffic control signals, devices, signs, and markings for use on all public roads.

In 1937, the Department received funding for statewide planning studies under the federal Hay Cartwright Act. Studies conducted included: survey and recording of all public rural roads; location study for a proposed Groton-New London Bridge; the economic justification study for the West Rock Tunnel, a 1,200-foot long tunnel (an engineering feature that is rare in New England) later constructed on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Woodbridge and New Haven, and studies for new highways in the Naugatuck Valley.

In 1938, Commissioner Macdonald was replaced by William J. Cox, who served until 1947. Born in Portland, Oregon in 1896, Cox graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1918, followed by graduate studies at L'UniversitJ de Monpelier in France and at Yale University, where he was a professor of engineering until his appointment as Commissioner. His term was characterized by increasing emphasis on pre-planning and planning, as well as a more refined approach to the science of highway technology.

One of the major studies undertaken during his tenure was the study of traffic problems on the Boston Post Road in lower Fairfield County. Location and design studies were initiated for what was then known as the Parallel Road (Connecticut Turnpike, I-95), first between Greenwich and Stratford, then all the way to Danielson.

Work continued on upgrading the state's bridges, especially over the Connecticut River. The Middletown-Portland highway bridge, named the Charles J. Arrigoni Bridge for the state senator who promoted the project, was completed and opened on August 6, 1938, replacing the former drawbridge. When finished, the 3,420 foot-long bridge was the longest in New England and had cost $3.5 million dollars to build. Major bridges were also completed at Hartford and New London.


In Connecticut, the year 1938 is associated with one of the greatest natural disasters to ever befall the state in historic times -- the Great Hurricane. Between September 17 and September 21, 1938, over 12 inches of rain, accompanied by high winds and tides, hit the state, causing massive floods. By the time it was over, 50 bridges had been destroyed and an estimated 50,000 trees had fallen across roads. During the massive efforts to get the roadways cleaned up and back into use, one Department employee was killed and 107 employees injured. It was months before the state highway system could get back to normal.