Is anyone in Boulder City not excited by the impending completion of the Interstate 11 bypass? For better or worse, it will change the city. Traffic will improve due to lessening, but will businesses decline for the same reason? Will the change lead to stagnation or revitalization? Most people seem to expect the former, but I know of at least one example that disputes this hypothesis.
The example is Columbus, Texas, almost exactly halfway between Houston (70 miles west) and Austin (90 miles south by southeast). In this case, the bypass in question was not Interstate 10 to the south, but the building of the State Highway 71 bypass north of I-10 going to Austin (marked as “Feeder Road” off I-10 on the left of the photo).
Until the Highway 71 bypass was built, traffic between Houston and Austin followed a torturous path through the heart of Columbus: coming from Houston, I-10 west to Highway 90 to Highway 71, then north to Austin, or the reverse for those Houston bound from Austin, such as students heading home.
During rush hours, Friday and Sunday evenings, the traffic would be backed up like the worst day in Houston or Austin at a teeny intersection with eerie similarities to Boulder City Parkway and Buchanan Boulevard. It was hours worse than the worst backup on the highway formerly known as Nevada, now Boulder City Parkway.
Right near the intersection of 71 and 90, it was common to stop at a local restaurant or the grocery store. You could wait in line in your car for an hour or two or wait inside while getting a bite to eat, so a lot folks opted for a bite to eat. The local businesses made out like bandits, but today they no longer exist. When the Highway 71 upgrade came, they went.
This path is remarkably similar, as a mirror image, to Boulder City Parkway’s approach to Boulder City, with its own northern spur off to Lake Mead and the dam. Compare the graphic of Boulder City, with the project bypass and Buchanan extension, to what happened after the I-10 bypass and Highway 71 upgrade made the route through Columbus obsolete.
Columbus’ population of 3,900 or so has never varied more than a couple of percent since the Highway 71 bypass was built in the early 1990s. It is one-fourth the size of Boulder City and has none of the advantages of proximity to major cities, lakes or dams. Most of the city development occurred before the bypass and didn’t change much afterwards — except the city core near the intersection of Highways 71 and 90, comparable to Boulder City Parkway and Buchanan.
Part of the central core at 71 and 90 died, and the rest moved south to the bypass.
A little change occurred, but only on the outskirts, where Highway 71 intersected the I-10 bypass in much the same way an extended Buchanan Boulevard might intersect I-11. What was built? Gas stations and fast-food joints.
This parallel helps inform last year’s vote on whether to extend Buchanan Boulevard south to I-11. Some business owners in the center of Boulder City feared losing business to new ventures at the Buchanan/I-11 interchange, while others eagerly anticipated the opportunity to open a new venue there. This example soundly affirms the notion that central city businesses would move southward if the Buchanan/I-11 interchange were built.
Columbus, Texas, is much smaller than Boulder City, but the fact that it could hang in there and not become a ghost town says a lot for the possibilities for us. The future is not carved in stone, and we have the opportunity to make the most of the changes. If a town like Columbus, a town without nearly our advantages, can remain viable, then so can we. It remains to us find our own best path.
Dale Napier is a Boulder City business consultant with a background in urban transportation and development.