Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Branson Residents Battle Developers over Highway

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Branson Residents Battle Developers over Highway

Article excerpt

By Josh Lemieux

Associated Press

BRANSON, Mo. _ The scenic hills and hollows around this country music town aren't the only obstacles for a new highway loop. Many local residents say it's a costly mistake that will benefit mainly a few big developers.

But planners say the proposed Ozark Mountain Highroad will ease traffic jams on the country music strip and prepare the area for growth into the next century. Gov. John Ashcroft declared an "economic emergency" in June and put the project on a fastack _ compressing the usual five to seven years of planning into 18 months.

"This road is a Bandd for major surgery," complained Sid Croteau, whose home is near the proposed route. "The major surgery is needed on the left arm, and they're putting the Bandd on the right arm."

The debate reflects a broader controversy over development sprawling around Branson, a southwest Missouri Ozarks town with a population of 3,700 and a yearly tourist draw close to 5 million.

"We are continuing the unchecked growth with no forethought, and this road is just a continuation of that," said Bill Sheriff, a community leader who's asking planners to slow down and explore alternatives.

Kevin Keith, project manager for the Missouri Highways and Transportation Department, says the fastack is necessary to meet a traffic crisis on Missouri 76 _ better known as Country Music Boulevard.

"If we don't start on the highroad now, because of how long it takes, it won't be there four or five years down the road when it is absolutely necessary," he said.

Keith estimates one in four cars on Missouri 76 is throughaffic _ with no alternative but the crowded strip of hotels, restaurants and music shows. The new fourne highway would free throughaffic and better distribute stripbound cars, he says.

The 18-mile highway, costing about $160 million, begins at U.S. 65 five miles north of Branson and swings west, then south. It connects on the west end of the music strip near Silver Dollar City. A second phase will reconnect the loop to U.S. 65 about five miles south of Branson.

Nearly $300,000 in taxpayer money is set aside for Fleishmanllard Inc., a St. Louissed public relations firm, to help promote the project and gather public comment.

Critics say the highway will draw even more visitors to Branson, negating its own traffic benefits. Many also fear officials, in their zeal to finish the highway, will abandon other projects such as widening routes parallel to the strip and studying ideas such as a monorail system.

Boxcar Willie and Mickey Gilley, entertainers with venues on the strip, contend the highway will take traffic away from them, as well. Mayor Wade Meadows doesn't oppose the highway but believes it should make a tighter circle around the strip to serve existing roads and businesses. …

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