ConnDOT: Chapter 5 DOT History

Chapter 5 DOT History

WORLD WAR II 1941-1945


National war preparations for World War II in the early 1940s directly affected highway planning and construction in Connecticut. The U.S. War Department, through the Public Roads Administration, designated certain thoroughfares as "strategic highways," roads necessary to ensure efficient movement of war materiel. In Connecticut, the strategic highways included U.S. Route 1 from Greenwich to (Connecticut) Route 84 in Groton (now Route 184) to the Rhode Island state line; U.S. Routes 6, 6A and Route 15 from Danbury to Union; U.S. Route 5 from New Haven to Enfield; U.S. Route 7 from Norwalk to North Canaan; Connecticut Route 14 and U.S. Route 6 from Woodbury to Killingly; and Connecticut Routes 32 and 12 from New London to Thompson.

The newly designated strategic highways, according to the War Department, had to meet certain standards of widths and clear heights on existing bridges, for foundations, and for minimum widths of pavement and shoulders on new road construction. A state inventory of conditions on the strategic highways indicated that more than 500 miles and approximately 12 bridges needed alteration of one kind or another, a finding which diverted funds from state identified projects to the strategic routes.

In 1942, traffic authorities in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the Metropolitan Defense Transport Committee of the City of New York designated a series of primary and secondary highways in each state as "Civil Routes." These highways would provide alternate routes for civilian traffic between metropolitan New York and outlying areas when the Boston Post Road or Merritt Parkway were needed by the government or defense agencies. Connecticut's Highway Department installed special signs marking the routes and distributed maps to the general public.


The United States War Department and the War Production Board, anticipating shortages, established priority and preference ratings for materials considered essential to the war effort. Many of them, particularly steel and asphalt, were integral to road construction. To handle the priority applications for both state and federal road construction projects, the Highway Department established a new section just to handle processing. Between September 1, 1941 and September 1, 1942, approximately 370 priority applications were made by the Department to obtain materials, machinery, and repair parts.

Material shortages, failure to win a priority rating, the national policy of discouraging projects not directly beneficial to the war, and labor shortages, all contributed to construction and maintenance delays on Connecticut highways and bridges. The Wilbur Cross Parkway, one of the Department's major projects, had to be suspended because of lack of labor and equipment to complete the necessary grading. Asphalt for road repair and maintenance was restricted for war-time use.

Construction of the Charter Oak Bridge between Hartford and East Hartford suffered delays as contractors waited for preference ratings for materials. A major setback occurred on December 4, 1941, when a portion of the westerly river span failed and fell into the Connecticut River, killing 16 of the contractor's employees. However, with persistence, the bridge finally opened on September 5, 1942. The Charter Oak Bridge was the longest span continuous plate girder bridge in the country. Riverfront Boulevard, the Park River Interchange, and the Park River Highway, part of the overall project plan, were not completed due to restrictions placed by the War Production Board.

In November, 1942, the War Production Board ordered suspension of work on the Broad Street traffic interchange in New London. The project was designed to improve the western approach to the Groton-New London Bridge. The necessary steel was on site, but permission for its erection was denied. The Board also withdrew preference ratings, thereby suspending work on three projects in Groton which were part of the eastern approach to the new bridge.

Construction of the Groton-New London Bridge itself was plagued by war-related problems. Before construction began, the process of securing rights of way were complicated by the rapid construction of emergency housing units in the proposed right-of-way. The housing was needed to meet a local shortage in this highly populous defense-industry area. In June, 1942, the project was seriously threatened when the War Production Board canceled the delivery of over 1,000 tons of steel for the bridge deck. The strategic position of the bridge for the movement of defense plant traffic helped save the project, along with the pleas of the U.S. Navy, the Bureau of Docks and Yards, the Public Roads Administration, and the Army-Navy Munitions Boards. The final obstacle to completion of the bridge was labor. In the winter of 1942-43, employees of the Highway Department's bridge maintenance section were recruited to supplement the contractor's staff to complete the bridge deck and install navigation lights. Despite the delays, the bridge opened to traffic on February 27, 1943.

A further blow to highway construction in Connecticut during the war years came in April, 1944, when Executive Order L-41-E limited construction costs to $10,000 or less and restricted the use of critical materials until September 7, 1945.


In January, 1941, as part of the war effort, Governor Hurley proposed to the General Assembly that the state purchase 2,000 acres of land in Windsor Locks to facilitate construction of a military airfield. The federal government entered into a lease to construct the airfield and support facilities, and the airport opened in the summer of 1941. At the conclusion of the war, the airfield was opened to public use. Commercial airline services, which had been initiated at what was then known as the Hartford Airport (now Brainard Airport) were transferred there. In October, 1948, the airport, today known as Bradley International Airport, was officially returned to the state by way of a quit claim deed.


In October, 1943, the largest railroad in the state, the New Haven Railroad, filed for bankruptcy. Two months later, the federal government again took control of the country's railroads for national defense, control which lasted until January, 1947. As a result of the flurry of increased railroad activity brought about by war-time, the New Haven Railroad emerged from bankruptcy. During the war years, rail rates had increased by 28 percent and then again by 32 percent. Unfortunately, these boosts in revenues were not sufficient to sustain the New Haven Railroad for very long.


During the early years of the war, the Bureau of Highway Planning Studies was established under Commissioner Cox to carry out research and statistical studies to assist in developing roadway construction and reconstruction programs. The Highway Department could not expend its energies on construction and maintenance as it had in years past, but the war years enabled its engineers to develop a wealth of plans waiting for implementation after the war. Plans were developed that could be converted into contracts on short notice. To further expedite post-war projects, the Department also actively acquired rights-of-way in the areas of proposed construction. In anticipation of V-J Day, the Department had ready to advertise plans and specifications for over $10 million worth of improvements on the state highway system.

Planning for the post-war years was also the focus of the Highway Advisory Commission appointed by Governor Raymond E. Baldwin in 1943. The commission was charged with reviewing the long range program of the Highway Department and establishing a five-year program of improvements. Highway Commissioner Cox presented to the commission, for their approval, a $79 million program including nearly 100 projects, covering everything from a simple drainage structure to a comprehensive array of work on the Wilbur Cross Highway and the Wilbur Cross Parkway, and extensive work on various parts of the trunk line system. Additional long-term projects, estimated to cost $150 million, were also identified.

In addition to state plans for highway improvements, the Department also had federal regulations to consider. In December, 1944, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act, stipulating four federal road networks: primary or trunk; farm-market; urban; and interstate. State and federal governments were to share construction expenses for "secondary roads," both farm-market and urban state or local roads that connected primary roads. The act also designated 40,000 miles of highway as a National System of Interstate Highways. Within Connecticut, 267 miles were identified as Interstate Highway miles. The location of the proposed interstates included a route along the shore from Greenwich to the Rhode Island state line in North Stonington, from Danbury through Waterbury and Hartford to the Massachusetts border at Union, and a route from New Haven northerly through Meriden and Hartford to the Massachusetts border at Enfield. The act stipulated that state and federal governments would share fiscal responsibilities. However, day-to-day operations remained under the control of state highway agencies. State highway departments were also charged with selecting and locating highways to be included in the secondary road program and in the Interstate System. By 1946, Connecticut's Highway Department had selected the roads within the secondary road systems, based on the mileage of rural public roads carrying over 50 vehicles per day in each county. The Department selected 1,085 miles of highway for federal aid.


The Highway Department celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on July 3, 1945. Commissioner William J. Cox received a commemorative plaque from Governor Raymond E. Baldwin, and 116 retired and working members of the Department who had served the state for 25 years or more were honored. The Department was poised for the next 50 years.

Content Last Modified on 9/9/2003 10:18:55 AM