I-91

Starts at I-95 in New Haven; passes through Meriden, Hartford, and Enfield, where it leaves the state. Continues through Springfield, Mass., into Vermont, and to the Canadian border. There, Quebec Autoroute 55 continues another 130 miles, crossing the St. Lawrence seaway.

Interstate 91's lane configuration (discounting operational lanes) is:

  • I-95 to Route 40: 8 lanes
  • Route 40 to Meriden: 6 lanes
  • short Meriden section between the Route 15 roadways: 4 lanes
  • Meriden to Route 9: 6 lanes
  • Route 9 to Route 3 (Putnam Bridge): 8 lanes
  • Hartford area: mixed.
  • I-84 to Route 20: 6 general purpose + 2 HOV lanes
  • Route 20 to Mass. state line: 6 lanes
I-91 separation structure
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at I-84, Hartford
Complicated collector and distributor ramps at the I-91/I-84 interchange in Hartford. View is northward from the Founders Bridge pedestrian walkway over I-91. This interchange was reconstructed in the late 1980s and completed in 1990.

From left to right, the roadways are: I-91 southbound (SB) exit to State Street; I-84 EB entrance to I-91 SB; I-91 SB lanes; I-91 NB exit (32A) to I-84 WB; I-91 NB local lanes (access to exits 32A-32B); I-91 NB express lanes. At top is the I-84 EB flyover to I-91 NB.

Photo taken Sept. 2002 by Kurumi.

Points of Interest

In New Haven, the exit 3 interchange (Trumbull Street) would have been the northern terminus of a planned ring road circling downtown and Yale University.

Further north, the interchange at Exit 6 was built anticipating the East Rock Connector, which was cancelled.

At East Main Street in Meriden, I-91 runs between the opposing roadways of Route 15 for a short distance, as the freeways converge then diverge. At Airport Road in Hartford, they meet again, but in this instance I-91 parallels Route 15 to the west, before crossing again at the Charter Oak Bridge approach.

In Rocky Hill, between exits 23 and 24, you can see where an interchange with I-291 was planned. There was even an overpass built above the southbound lanes, but it was dismantled during a widening project in 1999.

In downtown Hartford, northbound I-91 splits into two local lanes and two express lanes (see photo above). At Interstate 84, the northbound lanes are two levels below the southbound lanes, with I-84 in between and a flyover ramp above them all. Further north are the HOV lanes.

HOV lanes

I-91 north of Hartford has two High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, one in each direction. These are separated from the general-purpose lanes by striped areas (about 15 feet) and have their own entrance and exit ramps. The I-91 HOV exits are:

  • merge with I-91 south (SB only)
  • Liebert Road (SB off, NB on)
  • Route 218 (NB off, SB on)
  • Route 305 (NB off, SB on)
  • Route 75 (NB off, SB on)
  • merge with I-91 north (NB only)

The other freeway in Connecticut with HOV lanes is I-84 east of Hartford.

History:

Statewide planning

The general alignment of Interstate 91, within a few miles, has been set since the mid-1940s. At that time, a network of interregional highways was laid out for the United States: a system that later became our familiar interstate highways. In 1947, Connecticut's portion was a $262 million, 370-mile network including US 1 and Route 84 (today's I-95); US 6 and Route 15 (today's I-84); and US 5 and 5A through New Haven, Meriden, Hartford, Windsor Locks and Enfield (today's I-91).

On August 14, 1957, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) approved the general routes for interstates 84, 91, and 95. On June 27, 1958, it approved the numbers.

Conland Highway - Hartford

The earliest freeway to be incorporated into I-91 is the Conland Highway (1945), which led from a trumpet interchange at the western approach to the Charter Oak Bridge ("COB"), north to today's I-91 exit 29A, then along the Conland - Whitehead Highway to Pulaski Circle. The highway would have opened earlier if not for wartime restrictions in the early 1940s (construction was halted in Sept. 1942). The highway was opened from the COB to Commerce Street (now Columbus Blvd.) on Oct. 3, 1945; and from Commerce Street to Pulaski Circle a month later.

In planning documents, the portion later to be I-91 was often called the Dike Highway, as it would run on top of a new flood-control dike along the Connecticut River.

North Meadows Highway and beyond - Hartford to Enfield

In 1943, an express highway was planned for North Hartford, extending to Route 75 in Windsor, including a western spur to Tower Avenue. Even though the Tower Avenue spur became part of a larger plan in 1949 to link to Route 189, it was eventually deleted.

Construction of the North Meadows Highway started in 1948, and "old-timers" in the area will remember the service roads at exit 33, a design feature that was replaced in the 1990s with a conventional diamond interchange at Jennings Road. The segment from a traffic signal at Morgan Street to Main Street at Wilson opened in November 1950.

In 1952, detailed plans for I-91 north of Hartford were shown, and were almost identical to I-91 today, including a connector to Bradley Airport. The highway, now called the Veteran's Highway, was extended to Windsor Locks in 1958 and Enfield in 1959. The first signs identifying the road as I-91 were installed in March 1961.

The Wilbur Cross connection

In 1949, the Wilbur Cross Parkway (Route 15) was complete from the Merritt Parkway in Milford to the the Meriden Cutoff north of Meriden. The question: what to do north of there? The Berlin Turnpike had been improved in 1942 to handle Hartford-bound traffic, but the issue of a cross-state express highway remained.

As traffic levels increased, Route 9 (today's Route 99 and 154) got attention as well, and one 1950 proposal involved extending the Wilbur Cross Parkway northeasterly to Cromwell (near Route 3/9/372 today) then north to Hartford. 15 years later, I-91 opened along a straighter alignment, and a separate expressway was planned for Route 9.

Heavy traffic on the Silas Deane Highway portion of Route 9 in Rocky Hill and Wethersfield (today's Route 99) had earned it the uncomplimentary moniker "Death Alley." In 1952, a bypass link was planned, following the eastern route around Wethersfield that I-91 takes today.

Hamden and Wallingford

Once it leaves New Haven, I-91 swings outside town and city centers until it reaches Hartford; a dramatic turn eastward avoids Hamden and Wallingford, while US 5 continues through the center of town.

Originally, I-91 was to follow US 5 more closely south of Meriden, more directly serving those towns. Some proposed alignments even passed west of Wallingford Center, running next to Route 15 for a few miles.

However, Hamden (and possibly Wallingford) opposed building the expressway through downtown, leading to where I-91 goes today. In the early 1960s, the state and Hamden were already discussing a spur for access to I-91 -- a project that eventually became Route 40.

In all, at least three highway proposals -- the East Rock Expressway, Route 40, and the Wharton Brook Connector (SR 702) -- were intended to give I-91 access to the US 5 and Route 10 corridors to the west.

I-91 opening dates

  • From I-95, New Haven to relocated US 6A (now I-691), Meriden: 18.8 miles, $54.5M, Jan. 7, 1966. (Connecticut's first Jersey barriers were installed here in 1968.)
  • From relocated US 6A (now I-691), Meriden, to Rocky Hill: 11 miles, Oct. 27, 1965.
  • From Charter Oak Bridge to Conland-Whitehead Highway: Oct. 3, 1945.
  • Morgan Street (now I-84) to Main Street (now CT 159), Hartford: Nov. 1950.
  • From Main Street to Windsor Locks: 1958
  • From Windsor Locks to Enfield: 1959

Planning a wider I-91 north of Hartford

Even before the last section of I-91 opened in southern Connecticut in 1966, the 1940s and 1950s-era highway north of Hartford was already considered obsolete, and widening it was unfinished business. In 1964, the plan was to make I-91 eight lanes wide from US 5A (now Route 159) in Windsor to Route 75. In 1966, the state added a plan to make I-91 and six lanes wide from Route 75 to Route 20.

One reason for the Route 75 stopping point for the eight-lane widening: this section of I-91 was built in 1956, before federal funding was available, and thus was eligible for 90% federal funding to add two lanes in each direction. North of Route 75, I-91 had been constructed with federal funds and thus was only eligible for 50/50 funding.

By 1971, the state was considering bus lanes as part of the widening, either as adjacent "diamond lanes", or permanent special lanes, in a planned 8-lane profile north to Route 20.

At the same time, however, hearings were held for a non-HOV I-91 widening, from Morgan Street to Bina Avenue, 8 lanes wide. Bids were to go out in 1972.

Widening northern I-91

In the late 1980s, I-91 was rehabilitated north of Hartford. North of Route 20, I-91 was widened in-place to six lanes (from four), but its profile was otherwise the same. The original highway had opened in 1959.

South of Route 20, I-91 was completely reconstructed in a manner similar to I-84 in eastern Connecticut: new bridges, new interchanges, and an eight-lane profile including two separate HOV lanes.

I-91/I-84 interchange

On October 14, 1998, an eleven-year period of construction ended on I-91 near the Founders Bridge and I-84 in Hartford. I-91 southbound was moved from above to below the Founders Bridge approaches, to allow for a pedestrian walkway to the river. Also, direct flyover ramps were added to complete the interchange at I-84, taking thru traffic off city streets. There's detailed information at the I-84 page.

Nobody beats our prices

Work was halted for two months in 1997 when the financially troubled contractor, George A. Tomasso Construction Corp., was replaced by O & G Industries. Eight of the nine original bids for the project ranged from $104 million to $127 million; Tomasso's bid was $68 million.

Tomasso had halted work on 19 state projects not two years earlier, in September 1995. Other evidence showed that not only was the company overextended, but the head of the company was psychologically troubled. In May 1992, he entered the office of Balf/Savin, a competitor, and told employees he had purchased the company and they were dismissed. Neither was true. Employees called police, and an ambulance took Tomasso away.

The preceding paragraphs don't tell the complete story, and I don't intend to trivialize the lessons shown in the sources about how relations between politics, contractors, and projects can go awry.

Shoreham-New Haven Bridge

In the 1960s and 70s, plans were floated for a 19-mile cross-Sound bridge linking New Haven and Suffolk County, Long Island. I-91 would have been extended across the bridge along an upgraded William Floyd Parkway to I-495.

Two approaches on the Connecticut side were considered. The first would touch land in East Haven and connect to I-95 just east of the Quinnipiac River Bridge (exit 50-51). The second would enter at West Haven, reaching I-95 between exits 43 and 44. The East Haven approach was preferred as the less disruptive one.

Estimates for the cost of the bridge, which would have been one of the longest in the world, exceeded $1 billion in 1979. That year saw contention over the project come to a head as most Suffolk county politicians supported the bridge, while Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso saw little benefit for her state. The bridge has not been discussed much since then; attention has gone to developing a high-speed ferry link in the area. For more information, see Steve Anderson's excellent Shoreham-New Haven Bridge page.

Spot Improvements

In the early 1990s, the I-91/Route 15 interchange at the Charter Oak Bridge was modified. The original interchange was a modified trumpet, alluding to the 1940s when Route 15 was the primary highway and today's I-91 north was the Conland Highway, a spur toward the Capitol Area. From I-91's perspective, the interchange had left exits from both directions on I-91 toward the bridge.

The new interchange is incomplete, with the less frequent movements removed (15 south to 91 north and 91 south to 15 north).

In 1994, a revamped freeway interchange with Route 3 opened in Wethersfield. This was originally to be the I-491 interchange.

In 1999, an operational lane in each direction was added near exit 23 in Rocky Hill. This project included work on the old I-291 interchange in this area made some passersby think that freeway was being disinterred; however, I-291 is still dead, dead, dead. They were only clearing out the area for the extra lanes.

Future:

The state Transportation Strategy Board has designated the I-91 corridor a "Transportation Investment Area," so more work might be in the offing for I-91. The Board is at the familiar Corridor Study phase of work; see their web site for preliminary docs.

Finessing the Charter Oak Bridge approach

In 2001, the DOT proposed changes to the Charter Oak Bridge approach (US 5 and Route 15) in Hartford. The COB is the primary connection from I-91 north to I-84 east, and from 84 west to 91 south. There is a weaving problem northbound on the bridge, as 91-84 traffic has to merge left as Route 15 - Route 2 traffic merges right. The proposal: modify the offramp from I-91 to merge with Route 15 from the left instead of the right, so no lane changes are needed for I-84.

However, the new ramp's proximity to Airport Road means the interchange there would have to be reconfigured as well: revised ramps from 91 north and 15 north to Airport Road. Businesses are concerned about increased traffic on Airport Road (another signal) and decreased traffic on Brainard Road (from the moved Route 15 ramp).

Sources:
  • "Proposed Express Hwy would serve Bradley Field."
  • Hartford Times, Feb. 26, 1943.
  • "[Highway Commissioner] Cox sees chance to finish dike work."
  • Hartford Times, March 26, 1943. (Conland highway work near exit 29A.)
  • "Many dollars to go on US - state roads."
  • Hartford Times, Aug. 27, 1947.
  • "N-S Highway to start this year."
  • Hartford Times, Feb. 27, 1948. (North Meadows highway in Hartford.)
  • "Tower Ave. Hwy Link asked in Legis. Bill."
  • Hartford Times, Jan. 25, 1949. (Western spur from I-91 in Hartford.)
  • "State studies best route for hwy."
  • Hartford Courant, May 24, 1950.
  • "Expressway to open Nov. 27."
  • Hartford Courant, Nov. 14, 1950. (I-91 from Morgan St to Wilson.)
  • "State to add 5 more miles to expwy."
  • Hartford Times, Aug. 2, 1951. (North Meadows highway in Hartford.)
  • "Parkway link will bypass 'Death Alley'."
  • Hartford Times, Feb. 4, 1952.
  • "Road routed by way of Wethersfield."
  • Hartford Times, Feb. 5, 1952.
  • "Detailed route of new 4-lane expwy from Hartford to Springfield."
  • Hartford Times, Nov. 29, 1952.
  • Johnson, David S. "Photogrammetry in Highway Planning." Highway Research Bulletin #228, National Academy of Sciences, 1959.
  • "Interstate highways to be widened by State." Hartford Courant, Feb. 18, 1964.
  • "90% Federal Aid Spurs State Widening I-91 to Poquonock."
  • Hartford Times, Jan. 6, 1966.
  • "Rocky Hill, Meriden Ribbon Cutting Will Open 11 miles of I-91 today."
  • Hartford Courant, Oct. 27, 1965.
  • "Rte. I-91 opened into New Haven."
  • Hartford Times, Jan. 6, 1966.
  • "Hartford Strip of I-91 Dangerous, 335 Accidents, 6 Fatalities Noted."
  • Hartford Times, Jan. 20, 1968.
  • "Bus lane proposed for I-91."
  • Hartford Times, June 21, 1970.
  • "Hearing scheduled for I-91 widening."
  • Hartford Courant, August 22, 1970.
  • "[Windsor] Officials to fight wider I-91."
  • Hartford Times, August 28, 1970.
  • "Highway bus lanes planned."
  • New Haven Register, April 27, 1971.
  • "Work on I-91 Pedestrian Deck Restarts; New Builder Tackles Hartford-River Connection."
  • Hartford Courant, May 15, 1997.
  • "Builder's Fall Halts Projects in Connecticut." New York Times, October 1, 1995.
  • "State Seeks Ways To Ease Traffic Near Charter Oak Bridge."
  • Hartford Courant, June 7, 2001.
  • Summers, Stephen. "Interstate system route numbering - Connecticut." http://www.nwindianahwys.homestead.com/CONN.HTML. (23 April 2003)