Wilbur Cross Highway (I-84)

EXTENDING CONNECTICUT'S WILBUR CROSS HIGHWAY: As early as 1936, the New York-based Regional Plan Association (RPA) advocated the construction of an express highway connecting New York and Boston. Three years later, officials in Connecticut proposed an extension of the automobile-only Merritt Parkway from Milford through the New Haven and Hartford areas. The proposed Wilbur Cross Parkway was to terminate in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. From there, highway officials in Massachusetts planned an extension of the parkway toward Worcester and Boston along the US 20 corridor.

By 1949, the completed parkway reached just short of the Massachusetts border in Union, Connecticut. Over the next several years, the state of Connecticut improved the four-lane parkway northeast of Hartford to allow its use by commercial vehicles. At the same time, the Massachusetts Department of Public Works (MassDPW) initiated construction of the Wilbur Cross Highway extension to US 20 in Sturbridge.

The Wilbur Cross extension into Massachusetts, which was completed to US 20 in 1952, was configured as follows:

  • The new four-lane highway was an improvement upon the existing two-lane Mashapaug Road (which carried the MA 15 designation before the highway did). It had a wide median and frequent U-turns. (Two decades later, the original U-turn ramps were recycled as interchange ramps for EXIT 1.)

  • From the Connecticut-Massachusetts border to the current EXIT 1, a new two-lane carriageway carried eastbound / northbound MA 15 traffic, while the existing two-lane road now carried westbound / southbound MA 15 traffic. (Today, the former MA 15 eastbound carriageway is the location of the I-84 westbound carriageway, while the former MA 15 westbound carriageway reverted to its original use as a two-lane local road.)

  • From EXIT 1 to EXIT 2 (just south of the MA 131 overpass), a new two-lane carriageway carried westbound / southbound MA 15 traffic, while the existing two-lane road now carried eastbound / northbound MA 15 traffic. (Today, the former MA 15 westbound carriageway is the location of the I-84 eastbound carriageway, while the former MA 15 eastbound carriageway reverted to its original use as a two-lane local road.)

  • Grade-separated interchanges were constructed at MA 131 (current EXIT 2) and US 20 (current EXIT 3).

Five years later, the Wilbur Cross Highway - now designated MA 15 - was extended to connect to the newly completed Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90), ending at a "trumpet" interchange. At this time, the Wilbur Cross Highway from East Hartford to Sturbridge was added to the Interstate highway system, and received the I-84 designation. Still, the highway required further upgrades to bring it up to modern Interstate standards.

THE I-86 ERA: In October 1968, the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island were granted an Interstate route between I-84 in East Hartford and I-95 in Providence in the "Proposed Interstate System Adjustment" report. The new route, which was to parallel US 6 and US 44 through Tolland and Wyndham counties, was designated as a re-routed I-84. The existing I-84 between East Hartford and Sturbridge received a new designation: I-86.

Shortly thereafter, the MassDPW embarked on the following program to reconstruct its eight-mile-long stretch of the Wilbur Cross Highway:

  • From the Connecticut-Massachusetts border north to EXIT 1 (Mashapaug Road), a new  carriageway was constructed for three-lane eastbound traffic. The existing two-lane eastbound carriageway was reconstructed for three-lane westbound traffic, while the existing westbound carriageway reverted to local use.

  • North of EXIT 1, a new carriageway was constructed for three-lane westbound traffic. The existing two-lane westbound carriageway was reconstructed for three-lane eastbound traffic, while the existing eastbound carriageway reverted to local use.

The new and reconstructed carriageways provided three 12-foot-wide lanes and standard shoulders. Both carriageways were separated by a wide, forested variable median. New bridges, interchanges and weigh stations were erected along the route. The $20 million reconstruction project was completed in 1973. (Similar improvements in Connecticut were not completed until the 1980's.)

I-86 BECOMES I-84 ONCE AGAIN: In June 1984, the MassDPW changed the designation along the Massachusetts section of the Wilbur Cross Parkway from I-86 back to I-84. (The MA 15 designation had also been removed from the route.) This route change back to I-84 came after the following developments outside the commonwealth:

  • Due to concerns about the Scituate Reservoir, the U.S. Department of Transportation did not approve the Rhode Island section of I-84, and required the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) had to develop a new environmental impact statement. Subsequently, the RIDOT abandoned further study of an I-84 route to Providence after finding that there was no suitable alternative to the previously recommended route in the area of the Scituate Reservoir.

  • The remaining Connecticut sections of I-84 east of Bolton were conditionally approved, subject to the approval of the Rhode Island route. However, after the RIDOT abandoned further studies on I-84, ConnDOT traded in the Interstate highway mileage for the proposed I-84 east of Bolton in September 1983.

According to the Massachusetts Highway Department (MHD), the six-lane I-84 carries approximately 40,000 vehicles per day (AADT).

This 2000 photo shows the eastbound Wilbur Cross Highway (I-84) at EXIT 3 (US 20) in Sturbridge, just before its terminus at the Mass Pike (I-90). Originally built in the early 1950's as a bypass of Sturbridge, I-84 was reconstructed to Interstate standards during the early 1970's. (Photo by Jim K. Georges.)

EXTENDING BEYOND THE MASS PIKE: In its 1965 "Central Corridor Traffic Study," the MassDPW recommended a 35-mile-long extension of the Wilbur Cross Highway (MA 15) from the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) in Sturbridge north to MA 12 in Ashburnham. The four-lane, north-south freeway was expected to carry 15,000 vehicles per day (AADT) some 20 years hence.

The proposed MA 15 Expressway was to provide access to the Concord Pike (MA 2) near EXIT 24 (MA 140) in Westminster. It also was to connect to the MA 9 and MA 122 expressways, two radial routes that were to provide access to downtown Worcester. Like the MA 9 and MA 122 expressways, the MA 15 Expressway extension to Ashburnham was not built.

SOURCES: "Freeways Are Now Urged," The New York Times (12/13/1936); "Connecticut Opens an Auto Tunnel, Last Link in Wilbur Cross Parkway," The New York Times (11/02/1949); "A Report of Progress," Massachusetts Department of Public Works (1962); "Central Corridor Traffic Study," Massachusetts Department of Public Works (1965); "The Massachusetts Highway Story (1949-1969)," Massachusetts Department of Public Works (1969); Massachusetts Highway Department; Dan Moraseski; Scott Oglesby; Paul Schlichtman; Alexander Svirsky.

  • I-84 and I-86 shields by Ralph Herman.
  • MA 15 shield by Barry L. Camp.
  • Lightpost by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.

WILBUR CROSS HIGHWAY LINKS:

CURRENT SMART TRAVELER ROAD CONDITIONS:

  • Construction and Accident Delays
  • Live Traffic Cams

OFF-SITE EXIT LISTINGS:

  • I-84 (Massachusetts) exit list by Jay Hogan.

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