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The bypass blues

The bypass giveth, and the bypass taketh away.

If motorists on a new branch of Texas 249 glance out their windows as they zip past Tomball, they’ll see a blur of restaurants and shops that soon will be framed in their rear-view mirrors.

The bypass road, which local leaders prefer to call the “Tomball Expressway,” is helping commuters reach homes to the north and workplaces to the south more quickly. But some merchants along the road now known as “Business 249” say sales have dwindled as motorists pass them by.

“It’s definitely affected us. Our revenues are down 15 percent,” said Valery Norton, the assistant manager of a Starbucks on Business 249.

The effect of the new road on this northwest Harris County town of 10,000 illustrates the dilemma facing many Houston area communities adapting to the growth surrounding them.

As developers create new subdivisions and business centers on pastures and fields, towns such as Tomball increasingly become just a set of traffic lights motorists would prefer to avoid on their way to something else.

“These rural areas aren’t rural any more,” said Pat Waskowiak, a program manager in the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

“There’s an inherent conflict between trying to accommodate the commuter traffic and the smaller communities that are trying to retain their business and their character.”

Tomball City Manager Jan Belcher, however, said the town’s decision to support construction of the bypass was intended to benefit local residents as well as commuters. The Texas Department of Transportation opened the southbound lanes in January and northbound lanes in May.

The town and its chamber of commerce lobbied for the road, Belcher said, because Texas 249 was becoming choked with traffic. This created problems for local residents trying to get to businesses on the highway as well as for motorists headed somewhere else, Belcher said.

“It’s working exactly as it was intended,” Belcher said. “It allows the (commuter) traffic to get through, and it allows people on Business 249 to get in and out of the businesses.”

I don’t drive out that way, so I haven’t seen the changes this has brought. But I’ve been driving to Austin along 290 for 20 years, and the same kind of thing happened years ago to a lot of the small towns between here and there, like Prairie View and Hempstead. There’s a McDonald’s in Hempstead, just south of the Lawrence Marshall dealership and the junction with State Highway 6, that used to be a regular stop for me. I’ve no idea if it’s still there – the modern 290 so thoroughly bypasses Hempstead you hardly realize you’re passing through a town at all. It makes for a faster and more fuel-efficient drive to Austin, so I’m not complaining. But I do wonder what effect it’s had on the place.

You still get to see some of the towns along 290 as you drive through. Brenham is bypassed in the sense that there’s a “Business 290” that takes you on the slow drive through the old town center, but the stretch just north of the junction with State Highway 36 and the two miles or so south where the two roads are concurrent has places to stop and eat or sleep and even a few businesses that aren’t travel-dependent. Farther west in Giddings, 290 is pretty much as it was when I first started making that drive, with the road serving as the main local drag. It’s the only remaining locale where you have to slow down as much as 35 MPH, and there’s both traffic lights and an active railroad crossing to keep you slowed down, but I don’t mind. I like being reminded about places like that. It also has a lot of good choices to stop and deal with hungry or bathroom-needing kids, which I appreciate even more.

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One Comment

  1. Jeb says:

    This just goes to show you the importance of place. Originally, the term “exurban” was used to refer to urban centers on the edge of metropolitan areas. Tomball could work to establish itself as such a town center, a destination of shops, restaurants, and other services where people would want to drive to rather than drive through.