As president of the Long Island State Park Commission, Robert Moses (1888-1981) had a vision to construct a series of parkways to carry residents of New York City to the state parks in Nassau County. The roads would be surrounded by parkland, creating an aesthetically pleasing barrier between traffic and the surrounding communities while simultaneously serving as an extension of the state parks to which the roads would connect.
The idea for the construction of parkways dates back to 1866, when architects Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) proposed a network of wide, tree-lined boulevards radiating from Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The first modern parkway was Eastern Parkway, constructed between 1870 and 1874, which ran from Grand Army Plaza to Ralph Avenue in Brooklyn. The roadway was the first to allow crossing roads to pass under or over the parkway on bridges to eliminate the need for traffic lights. In 1930, Moses proposed his own network of parkways, looping through and around the boroughs and out into Long Island, and later built much of what he had envisioned. His parkways continue to be widely used, easing congestion on local streets and making New York a more navigable city.
The idea for the Southern State Parkway occurred to Moses upon the discovery of an undeveloped stretch of land previously used by the City of Brooklyn to transport its water supply from reservoirs on Long Island. Before Brooklyn merged with Manhattan in 1898, Brooklyn piped in water along what is now Conduit Boulevard to a reservoir in Ridgewood. After the merger, the Borough of Brooklyn gave up its Long Island wells, but kept the right-of-way along the pathway of the pipe. To Moses, the land “was the idea behind Jones Beach and the Southern State Parkway,” for once a right-of-way was secured, Moses had the land on which to build his road.
By utilizing unused city land for this project, Moses was able to avoid the type of large-scale population displacement that plagued projects such as the Cross-Bronx Expressway (1948-1963). Nevertheless, in order to build the Southern State, many Long Island farmers were either forced off their land or required to sell portions of their farms.
The first section of the parkway, from Central Avenue to Peninsula Boulevard, was completed in 1927, with the road reaching Moses’ most famous state park, Jones Beach, in 1929. From its inception, the Southern State Parkway incorporated many new and innovative engineering designs, such as grade separation and cloverleaf interchanges. After reaching the beach, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) suggested an extension of the parkway into Brooklyn, where it ultimately evolved into part of the Belt Parkway. The road would reach its proposed eastern terminus, Bay Shore Road in Suffolk County, by 1949.
Changes would come to the road over time, as the Southern State had to be altered due to increasing volume. Prior to World War II (1939-1945), the State Department of Transportation estimated that fewer than 15,000 cars traveled on the Southern State Parkway per day. Due to the postwar population boom on Long Island, the number has risen to 190,000 per day at a given point on the roadway.