FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. -- Fairfield County commuters better get used to traffic jams on the Merritt Parkway caused by tree removal for the rest of this summer -- and next summer. And the next.
That's the word from Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick, who said Hurricane Irene, Superstorm Sandy and this winter's blizzard have forced the state's hand to take drastic measures in tree removal on one of the state's most scenic highways.
After a hurricane assessment report was presented to Gov. Dannel Malloy and the Department of Transportation after those storms, the state decided that all trees within 30 feet of the edge of the asphalt that "pose a safety concern" must be removed in anticipation of future storms.
Since Sandy, the state has doubled its tree crew personnel from 25 to 50 and its budget from $1 million to $2 million per year.
"This is the picture all around the state," Nursick said. "We have a lot of tree work to do, and we've been doing it in earnest."
The crews are wrapping up removal on the northbound side of the Merritt in New Canaan and Westport. Tree removal will begin on the southbound side from Westport to Greenwich once the northbound project is complete. That work will last the rest of the summer and is sure to tie up traffic throughout Fairfield County.
Although many people have shared concerns about the aesthetics of removing the trees from along the Merritt, Nursick said the safety of drivers and keeping the parkway open are the state's top priorities.
"The Merritt Parkway leads the state, by far, in car-versus-tree incidents," he said. "We don't say, 'Let's lower our safety level because it's special.' We don't do that in this business. Safety comes first, aesthetics comes second."
Nursick also said it was "unacceptable" for the parkway to be closed for two days again as it was in the previous storms, considering the importance of the state in the road.
"People have seen the price that we pay in these storms, particularly on the Merritt Parkway, with trees falling," he said.
Although the Merritt has become known for its tree canopy, many of the trees did not exist or were much smaller when the parkway opened 75 years ago this week. Now, Nursick said, most trees are old and prone to falling, even in weak storms.
Although it may seem like crews are removing a lot of trees, Nursick said it is nothing compared with the damage a direct hit from a Category 3 hurricane would do to the state. The report presented to the state estimated that 80 percent of all trees in the state would be knocked down in that scenario.
Nursick said there are an estimated 857 million trees in the state of Connecticut.
"Even if we removed a million trees in this project -- which is way more than we're going to -- it would only be about a tenth of 1 percent of the trees in the state," he said.
Although the initial removal might be an eyesore, Nursick said the state plans to plant shorter bushes and plants in place of the trees that would not grow to threaten the parkway.
Click here to see the Department of Transportation's interactive map of all current highway projects, including the Merritt Parkway tree removal.