Thursday, December 07, 2006

"Developers were able to work directly with the road planners."

Toll road good for some, bypass others

When TXDOT announced four exits on I-35 would have to close when the toll roads opened, area businesses and residents balked. Exits will never re-open, but businesses cope.

December 07, 2006

By Andrea Lorenz
Austin American-Statesman
copyright 2006

Although the new toll roads have helped some Williamson County residents shave time off their commutes, they've been a mixed bag for some businesses.

At the La Frontera shopping center near FM 1325, the Texas 45 North toll road and Interstate 35, stores have been pleased since the toll roads, which include the northern extension of Loop 1 and Texas 130, opened Oct. 31. But some Round Rock locations along the eastern side of I-35 have lost out.

The closing of four exit and entrance ramps off I-35 between the Texas 45 North and RM 620 has made it more difficult to reach some businesses. That's particularly true for some on the eastern side of I-35 because of a large overpass that merges Texas 45 North traffic with northbound I-35.

"Customers have to work harder to get here," Kaleidoscope Toys owner Terry Myers said. She said her toy shop is blocked off from northbound drivers on I-35; they must exit early or turn around at RM 620 to get to it. Kaleidoscope Toys has seen a 10 percent to 15 percent drop in sales since the roads opened, Myers said.

There are no plans to replace the lost exits. Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Marcus Cooper said traffic flowing from the Texas 45 flyover onto northbound I-35 would cause too much of a hazard if vehicles already going north on I-35 tried to exit near McNeil Road and Hester's Crossing Road.

To alleviate congestion caused by the closing of the ramps, the City of Round Rock and the Transportation Department are funding a bypass of lights on the southbound access road of I-35 near Hester's Crossing. They are also planning a turnaround at RM 620 to make it easier to swing back and catch the missed businesses.

Myers said she has not considered moving her store to a more accessible location. Neither has Steve Greenberg, co-owner of Plucker's Wing Bar, which opened this year near the former McNeil Road exit along northbound I-35.

"If you don't get off at the La Frontera exit, you fly past our restaurant," Greenberg said. "It's a scary deal for Round Rock in general; they've kind of quarantined that whole northeast area of retail off."

It's still too early to know the effects of road changes, said Charley Ayres, the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce director of business retention and expansion, but he said an informal poll of area businesses has shown an upshift in sales since the toll roads opened — and since the construction ended.

While various lanes on I-35 were closed intermittently during construction, "it got to the point people didn't want to hassle with it and didn't drive down to La Frontera at all," he said.

He has heard good reports so far from businesses just south of Plucker's and Kaleidoscope in the Round Rock Crossing center, which is anchored by Target, and in the Boardwalk center anchored by Wal-Mart, as well as from those in La Frontera shopping center on the western side of I-35.

Smokey Mo's barbecue restaurant is in the same shopping center as Kaleidoscope Toys. General manager Lino Melchor said that he was concerned about the closing of the exit ramps but that the restaurant already had an established clientele, leaving sales unaffected.

Good timing and planning helped La Frontera because developers were able to work directly with the road planners to ensure that customers could access the shopping area. Drivers are now directed to La Frontera Boulevard from every direction along the new toll roads and I-35.

"The exits are excellent, related to La Frontera," co-developer Don Martin said.

Greenberg said he would like to see exit signs advertising food and gas that could direct traffic to Plucker's.

Although the exits — or lack thereof — worry him, he said, any number of factors could affect sales, including cold weather.

"Certainly what's occurred hurts, but is it the deciding factor? I don't know," he said.

"You try to do a good enough job with your business, and they're going to come anyway."; 246-0008

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