I've lived in my house in northeast Garland for a little more than ten years now, and in that time, I've seen a lot of change in the area. For the sake of simplicity, we could refer to the area at the time that I moved in as "Neighborhood 1.0," although it really was probably at version 1.5 before my arrival, with the extension of the Bush Turnpike from U.S. 75 to State Highway 78 about a year and a half before I bought the house; before that time, the area was miles away from any controlled-access highway and could only be reached via surface streets.
Version 2.0 began in October 2005 with the opening of Firewheel Town Center at the turnpike's temporary terminus (say that ten times fast!), and as I predicted in a blog post at the time, the presence of the New Urbanist center did indeed transform the area. No longer did we have to travel to Richardson or Plano to do the majority of our (non-grocery) shopping; the then-mayor of Garland marveled at how he could now purchase a men's suit within the borders of our city. And with that came two hotels, even more shopping, and restaurants of all kinds--a big relief from the days when my lunch choices were Subway #1, Subway #2 or Subway #3. (To this day, I'm still somewhat burned out on Subway, and while I still like it, I don't often go there unless it's someone else's idea.)
But the picture was always (literally) incomplete, as the turnpike came to (sometimes also literally) a screeching halt right in front of Firewheel. It's never been too much fun at rush hour, and it still meant that our neighborhood was landlocked to the south; a trip to I-30 meant going through the surface streets of Rowlett or the even more traffic light-ridden Centerville Road. But just like, after probably a decade of driving by a lonely sign that said "Future home of AMC Theatres," Firewheel finally came to fruition, we waited with eager anticipation for the opening of the Eastern Extension that would carry us to I-30 in mere minutes. We were promised an opening in the "last quarter of 2011," and the project was delivered on time...today.
So did I take a trip on the new road within the first hour or two of its opening? You bet I did! Some thoughts follow:
1) The new road is fast. Really, really fast. Having driven under, over and around it (sometimes in the same trip), it was amazing to watch the miles click by. (From the Lake Ray Hubbard bridge, its counterpart on Rowlett Road looked like a Hot Wheels track.) My teaching takes me from Rowlett to Sachse and back in the same day on several occasions during the week, and that trip's time just got reduced by three-fourths.
2) Some of the onramps were not open yet as of this afternoon; we had been warned as such, so that wasn't surprising. What was a surprise was that, while the entire southbound length of the project was open to I-30 today, the northbound part appeared only to be accessible north of Miller Road in Rowlett. So at the end of the journey, I had to wind back through Rowlett to take my trip home. I can assume that it will all be open at this hour, but you might want to check if you're planning to go that way from the south today.
3) While it's incredibly convenient, it does come at a price; the mainlane gantry costs $1.52 if you have a TollTag, and cash customers will pay an eye-popping $2.28. (I guess that will convince all the holdouts in the area to finally get a tag.)
4) We probably won't see the other benefit of this project until after Christmas, or maybe even at the beginning of next year, when rush-hour traffic resumes at full strength, but I'm betting that the new turnpike will have a positive effect on the nearby surface streets as well. Firewheel Parkway/Rowlett Road in particular should get a decent amount of relief, since quite a bit of the turnpike traffic will continue ahead on that road instead of being dumped off in front of Firewheel.
5) My only real gripe with this project--and the NTTA will hear from me about it soon--is the tolling of the on- and offramps at Crist Road. Because of the lack of a contiguous frontage road through the Bush/Highway 78 interchange, all traffic is routed onto the turnpike there, and the on- and offramps at Brand Road were (and still are) free. And while the ramps to 78 are themselves free, it is now impossible to rejoin the eastbound frontage road (or enter the turnpike from the westbound one) without paying. As a resident of the area directly affected by this--the only way I can exit to my house for free is either to loop around Firewheel Town Center or go too far west via the South 78 ramp and double back--I'm none too happy about this.
6) Some of the signage is a little questionable as well; the westbound Firewheel Parkway/Crist Road exit is also the exit to the even busier SH 78, but there's no sign saying that until right before the exit ramp. (I can see some people trying to make crazy maneuvers to avoid missing that exit; it seems like the SH 78 shield should have been atop the sign from its first appearance.) Also, one exit in Rowlett is to the Merritt/Liberty Grove Connector, a road which won't exist until mid-2013. Meanwhile, motorists trying to reach the current Liberty Grove Rd. from the south will find that they've already passed it if they take that exit.
7) But the best thing about this besides convenience and traffic relief is the potential for the future. As I drove past what now are empty fields in Rowlett and Sachse, I didn't think "emptiness"--I thought "sites of future growth." Just as the Bush extension to 78 brought us Firewheel and its surrounding amenities, so will this new extension bring development and its added tax base. There's already talk of a business park in the area north of Liberty Grove, and I've heard about plans for an "entertainment district" in Rowlett near the bridge over the lake. It'll be fun to see what pops up over the years.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. Our neighborhood just got a lot more connected today.