TxDOT Fairfield I-45 Project: A Business Owner's Perspective PDF  ICON_SEP Print ICON_SEP  E-mail
Written by Benjamin Cooper   
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Fairfield has always been a “convenient” stop for travelers between Dallas and Houston where they can exit for services quickly and enter back on the interstate without much delay.  With the new proposed routes for exit and entrance ramps, this convenience will be taken away, and I fear many travelers will no longer be attracted to stop in our town to eat, to buy gas, or spend the night.  Not because the conveniences aren’t there, but because it will be difficult to access these services.
Behind each business in our community there is a story of a family that has worked many years to attract travelers.  These families have children who began working, and continue to work in the family business.  They have made career decisions based on the outcome of this hard work by their family and themselves.  We are one of those families.
My family, a brother/sister partnership, owns Cooper Farms Country Store on the southbound side of I-45 at exit 198 which is on a hard corner.  We just recently acquired Cole’s BBQ on the northbound side of I-45 at exit 198, also on a hard corner.    The decision to acquire this new business was based on the location next to the interstate and the ease which customers could access it.  It was the same when we purchased Cooper Farms Country Store seven years ago.  Currently we have 20 employees at Cooper Farms Country Store and 15 employees at Coles BBQ.  This represents 35 families who are depending on our business to prosper and be successful.  
But we are only one of many families with a business along this route.  There are families with restaurants, hotels, car dealerships, convenience stores and gas stations doing the same thing; taking out loans with local banks, employing people with families, bringing in sales tax revenue which goes to the state and local coffers.  We all have a vital interest in what happens when travelers are rerouted as they access our community.    
After carefully reviewing the proposed project for I-45 Fairfield, I feel this plan will be an economic detriment not only to our two businesses, but also to the other existing businesses along the interstate.  Not to mention the impact to our hospital district, which I will address later in my ongoing comments.
A concerned citizen of this community, who has no businesses along the I-45 route, did a study on a Monday between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. He counted no less than 351 vehicles exiting both northbound and southbound at Highway 27 or exit 198.   He acknowledges the traffic flow was “a mess” on this particular day. He found of these 351 vehicles exiting, 174 vehicles went to Coles BBQ, Cooper Farms County Store or Gilberto’s restaurant. He did not track the remaining vehicles as whether they went to Loves or into town.  That means 50% either went to my family’s two businesses or Gilberto’s, which is also owned and operated by another local family.  By closing this northbound exit, and forcing freeway traffic to exit way in advance by Church Street, you will effectively be cutting off our businesses that depend on this traffic for survival. Those who travel a great deal do not have any interest in attempting to get to a business for that distance along a frontage road.   Or if they miss the first two exits on the northbound side, they will have to travel 8 miles to turn around once they realize there are no more exits available to get to Hwy 27.  If they miss the exit on the southbound side, they will have two more opportunities to exit but then will have to circle around, going through several lights to return to our two places of business on each side of the interstate.  By then they are either going to continue northbound to Corsicana and stop somewhere there, or continue to southbound to Buffalo and stop somewhere there.   
Loves Truck Stop will be greatly affected as well.  Regarding the southbound frontage road, trucks will need to travel close to 3 miles and cross a very active Highway 84 then travel frontage road to Highway 27 and turn left on highway 27 in order to get to Love’s Truck Stop. The trucks will still be backed up at this intersection even though the distance from the light to the Love’s entrance has been lengthened.  This may cause drivers to make a decision to bypass Love’s in Fairfield and continue to Love’s in Palmer.  Let’s say for the sake of argument trucks decide they will stop at the Loves in Fairfield even with the inconvenience.  This means there will be more 18 wheelers traveling along the access roads for a much longer length of time.  This will also be a deterrent for travelers attempting to access the restaurants, gas stations, and hotels along the feeder roads.  
Also, where the two exits are planned on the northbound side, a traveler is will not visibly see the hotels, restaurants, gas stations, car dealership, etc. that they might potentially want to stop at along the way until it’s too late.  Once they do come up on these business and realize they would like to get off the interstate, there is no longer an exit for them to take unless they travel 8 more miles and turn around.  They will more than likely continue on in their journey and stop north of Fairfield.  The only way one of these business can notify them of the early exits is by the use of billboards.  I know for a fact from my attempts to obtain billboards on the northbound side, there are none to be had.  And no new billboards can be established in this countryside area because of the Ladybird Beautification Act which prevents any more billboards from being added along our interstates.
These businesses depend on the freeway for economic livelihood more than ever because of some already major setbacks in our community. The community of Fairfield does not need any more economic downturns right now. The 2 major industries supporting Fairfield and Freestone County and are in the process of closing.  Over the last 3 months over 300 employees, with good paying jobs, have been laid off.  Along with those major industries, our hospital district, which is an important and vital asset to travelers along I-45, because of its ability to stabilize patients after an interstate accident, and expedite emergency care flights, has recently undergone new ownership and is challenged with continuing service to this community and interstate travelers.
Now let me address the issue of the hospital and access to medical treatment.  If there were to be a traffic accident on the northbound side of I-45 and it occurred north of the last exit ramp to Fairfield, how will emergency vehicles enter this part of the interstate to treat victims?  There is no access with this proposed plan when the only northbound entrance to I-45 is north of hwy 27.  It will create a delay in reaching emergency victims along this stretch of highway.  Likewise, once the emergency team arrives and treats the victims, there will be no exit to reach a hospital which right now is so easily accessible with the existing exit 198 at Hwy 27.    If the accident were southbound and south of the last exit ramp, likewise, how quickly will emergency crews be able to reach victims and return them to the local hospital for treatment?  This is a grave safety concern and could be a matter of life and death for travelers unfortunate enough to encounter an emergency situation in this particular area of the I-45.  
Now to address the traffic flow situation at Loves Truck Stop, allow me to continue.  Because my family business is directly across the street from Loves I am very aware of the safety issues at the intersection on the west side of hwy 27 and at times on the east side of hwy 27 as well.  With trucks exiting on both sides, there is a lot of congestion and back up that happens.  The lack of traffic flow does create problems in these two areas.  So we are not denying there is a traffic flow issue in our area.  I just don’t believe this plan is the solution to this problem.  The idea of moving the southbound exit to the location shown on your plan maps is problematic in several ways
1.     For all practical purposes we will be utilizing tax dollars to pay for Loves Truck Stop parking lot. Currently Loves has 26 parking spots and 12 fuel spots, meaning Loves can accommodate only 38 trucks at a time. Those trucks that cannot enter into Loves park along the current frontage road and in the roadway of Hwy. 27, which causes traffic backups and very dangerous traffic conditions. Extending the frontage road does no alleviate this situation. Trucks will simply park along the frontage road waiting for a spot in Loves.
Your TxDot statistics show the amount of daily truck traffic. It takes about 30 - 45 minutes for a truck to fuel up creating significant back log and again, traffic issues.
2.    Trucks parked along the frontage road will cause a very dangerous situation for passenger cars. This will be a 2 way frontage road, and when trucks are parked along the frontage road, there is no doubt passenger cars will attempt to travel in the left lane to get around parked trucks and cause potential head on collision conditions.  
3.    Only 2 trucks can get through the light at the intersection, again causing backups and dangerous conditions. It is my assumption that should the frontage road exit be moved to the planned location, then trucks will enter Loves from the frontage road. However, this too creates an exit problem. So then we can assume trucks will exit Loves onto Highway 27, and in order to get to the northbound freeway entrance, the trucks will need to cross the westbound lane of Hwy 27 to get to the eastbound lane.   . Again, this still creates issues at the light and trucks blocking westbound 27 waiting for their turn to get to the light.
4.    Trucks parked along the frontage road will cut off access to the frontage road for those who live along or have property along the frontage road. Trucks may not take into consideration any of the access that is needed for those with property along the frontage road.
5.     I have seen as many as 50 trucks backed up along the current freeway exit, the current frontage road and along Hwy. 27. If we can assume the length of 100 feet for each truck, including space between parked trucks that would mean trucks could literally be parked along the frontage road to nearly the planned exit location.
6.     There needs to be additional law enforcement action in and around this area. Enforcement may not be within the realm of TxDot, but additional clear and distinctive signage and communication with local agencies could most certainly improve the overall situation. There is much confusion now as to who has the right-of-way exiting the freeway and trucks simply ignore the Yield Sign assuming the frontage road to yield to the freeway exit.
As a solution I would recommend:
1.    On the southbound side of I-45 when approaching exit 198, create a third lane with a wide shoulder which would begin farther north than the existing exit.  Then work with Loves to achieve the most efficient traffic pattern entering into and exiting from Loves.
2.    Keep the existing northbound exit 198 at highway 27, starting it closer south where trucks have a slightly longer lane to approach the traffic light at the intersection.  Allow these access lanes to be two way traffic rather than the suggested one way route.  This would not only give travelers a chance to exit for the now visible, motels, restaurants, and convenience stores on both sides of the interstate, but would also help emergency crews quick access to the much needed medical help for travelers.  
Another concern we have:
We have already been challenged with the proposal of a high speed rail traveling through our community.  We know one of the routes proposed takes the railway directly through the exit 198 area, coming either very close or directly over one of our businesses, Cooper Farms Country Store, and Loves.  So when we looked at the layout of this highway proposal, and saw where it would allow more frontage land, it would appear to us the highway department motive for these changes in Fairfield, Texas are actually to assist the high speed rail in making its argument for putting a railway along this route.  We certainly hope this is not the ulterior motive but it does deserve raising the question.
In closing, the TxDoT plans no matter what the reason or motive dramatically affect all of us. I would hope that TxDot will continue to study and take a close look at the traffic patterns and volume entering and exiting Loves.  I am sure there is a viable solution and hopefully we can work together to find this solution.

Benjamin Cooper
Cooper Farms
Coles BBQ