Route 156 was commissioned in 1932 as a 14.66-mile east-west route from Old Lyme to Waterford. The north-south segment of today's Route 156, between Route 82 and US 1, was originally numbered Route 86. In 1948, Route 156 annexed that portion and gained its ungainly shape.
Traffic engineers have paid the shoreline segment of Route 156 a considerable amount of attention over the years. Though US 1, and more recently I-95, have always handled non-local traffic, Route 156 has struggled with town, tourist and even marine traffic.
Old Shore Road, near the southernmost point of Route 156, is an old alignment that was bypassed in 1947. In 1955, the easternmost block became SR 578; in 1962, SR 578 was turned over to the town.
Traveling northwesterly into downtown Old Lyme, Route 156 originally followed McCurdy Rd. and Ferry Rd. to Neck Rd. The section of Shore Rd to the west is newer. In Feb. 1959, town residents voted 2-1 to approve the state plan for shifting Route 156 there. The new segment of Route 156, a limited-access two-lane road, was completed in 1961.
The old Route 156 was retained in the state highway system as SR 528 for a year or so, and then turned over to the town on July 30, 1962.
The town of Niantic and the Niantic River have been perennial chokepoints along Route 156. The original Niantic River Drawbridge, a low-clearance bridge built in 1922, was being opened about 6,000 times a year by the 1960s, causing severe traffic backups.
In 1963, the state General Assembly directed the Highway Department to study improving or replacing the bridge. In 1965, it was determined that nearby segments of Route 156 also needed upgrading, and the Department approved a limited-access designation along the route from Old Lyme to Waterford. (This would generally limit access to newly constructed segments of Route 156 to major cross streets.) In 1966, Waterford First Selectman Hugh MacKenzie called for a relocated Route 156 from the bridge to the New London city line.
In 1967, the General Assembly called for a wider study. In 1968, the state released its findings for both the bridge and the highway.
Four alternatives for the bridge were explored.
The higher fixed bridge was the preferred alternative.
The report also discussed three alternatives for relocating Route 156 east and west of the bridge. New sections would be limited access roads, generally two lanes, 40 feet wide.
Alternative B was preferred in the report. The cost in 1969 was estimated at $13 million.
Route 156 was never relocated here. In 1969, town officials were concerned about local impacts, and the state was considered "lukewarm" on the topic. At some point, the state moved to encourage motorists to use other routes by posting a Route B detour, using Niantic River Road, US 1, and Route 161.
Studies and hearings for a new bridge continued. In 1975, funding problems led the state to put aside plans for a high, fixed bridge in favor of a smaller, moveable bridge.
A new bridge was constructed in 1991 just south of the old one. It's higher and appears to be fixed, but clearance data is not available. As of the late 1990s, the "Route B" detour is still signed.
In 2002, there was talk of relocating a small section of Route 156 near its eastern intersection with US 1 in Waterford. A proposed community campus, to open in 2004, would have included land and buildings on both sides of Route 156 in the area: a high school, senior services, sports fields and a preschool. To make it easier and safer to walk there, planners were looking at restricting vehicle traffic, or providing pedestrian overpasses.
One option: "end Route 156 at the intersection with Avery Lane" (across from Route 213), and presumably route it north to US 1.
The first public brainstorming session was held in July 2002. Town First Selectman Paul B. Eccard noted that there is state precedent for moving state highways to accommodate community needs: US 1 in Fairfield and Greenwich; and unspecified highways in Storrs, Newington, and Willimantic.
In November 2002, a traffic consultant favored a $900,000 plan that would redirect Route 156 to meet US 1 at Wild Rose Avenue. A short segment of US 1, from Wild Rose to Vivian Street, would be widened to four lanes.