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Interstate 781 to free clogged traffic, but hurt businesses on neglected Route 342

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WATERTOWN - Interstate 781, which opened Thursday, has been promoted for its design to ease traffic congestion on routes 11 and 342. But local business owners are concerned that the 4.8-mile, four-lane connector from Interstate 81 to Fort Drum’s main gate will steal potential customers who won’t be driving by them anymore.

Businesses near the intersection of routes 37 and 342 in Pamelia expect to see fewer customers, proprietors said Thursday after the road opened in the early afternoon. Several people had already observed reduced traffic along Route 342, which the new highway roughly parallels.

The connector is expected to be the main route for Fort Drum soldiers who live in Watertown and used to take Route 342 to bypass the stop lights and dense traffic of Route 11’s growing commercial district. And residents off Route 11 north of Fort Drum also are expected to use the connector as a easier route to Watertown.

“It’s like I’m in a dark cloud now,” Walter H. VanTassel, owner of U Lock It Self Storage at 23315 Route 342, said Tuesday. He said he expects traffic flow past his business to drop by more than 50 percent, which will mean fewer customers renting storage units, U-Haul trucks and vans.

“We used to have tremendous visibility from people going back and forth from the fort on a regular basis,” he said, attributing 60 percent of business there to Fort Drum customers. “Now we won’t have people driving by the front door.”

But Mr. VanTassel planned for the anticipated loss of traffic on Route 342: In May 2011, he opened a second U Lock It location at 26106 Route 11, about a half-mile south Fort Drum’s main gate. That location’s 150 storage units have been full since it opened, and customers who now stop by are referred to the Route 342 site, which has 300 storage units. Those customer referrals should help keep the location at Route 342 financially afloat.

“We’ll be able to send them here,” he said, adding that 200 more units are planned for the Route 11 location.

Philadelphia resident Mark E. Waybright parked his truck at Longway’s Diner, 23725 Route 342, for a bite to eat at about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday after driving the newly opened I-781. Looking along Route 342, he observed: “I can tell it’s a little bit slower already. Most of the traffic here — 60 to 70 percent — comes from the fort; now it’ll be lost. Longway’s has been here forever, but some of these places are going to slow down and not get as much business.”

Gas stations along Route 342 include a Mobil, Sugarcreek Sunoco and Nice N Easy.

The 48-year-old Philadelphia resident who has lived there 30 years added that residents of northern Jefferson County like himself will probably use I-781 instead of Route 11 to get to Watertown.

“You aren’t going to stop at the lights on Route 11 unless you have a purpose,” he said. “Anybody who lives north of the intersection of Route 11 and 781” will take the connector.

Another business that depends on Fort Drum traffic is the Royal Inn, 25791 Route 37 at the intersection with Route 342.

“Of course they’re now going to change routes, because the new road is direct,” said Chenden C. Patel, who owns the 25-room motel with her husband, Dinesh T. “It depends on when the troops are here, but in the summer 30 to 40 percent of our business” comes from Fort Drum.

Keeping the motel profitable will be particularly challenging this winter, she said, because business always slows down this time of year.

“I have a lot of worry about how to pay the bills,” she said. “The winter is always going to be slow, but the new road has complicated things. I think Fort Drum traffic is going to be down by less than 50 percent.”

But the $57 million highway project, which took two years and more than 100 workers to complete, will also ease traffic on routes 11 and 342, state Department of Transportation spokesman Michael R. Flick said.

“There’s a lot of (business) growth that’s occurred around Routes 11 and 342, and they’re still going to be busy routes,” he said. “But there’s a lot of thru-traffic from trucks that travel north on I-81 and hop on Route 11. The connector will allow them to bypass the commercial corridor on Route 11 and get off to the north. Those at the post going to and from work can get off I-81, and go directly back to the post.”

The project should also improve safety. “You reduce the accident rate and help the flow of traffic,” he said.

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