Restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations west of Fort Drum used to cash in on military and civilian traffic along the commuters route workers buying breakfast in the morning, for example, and soldiers stopping for beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets after work.
But since December, when Interstate 781 opened, commuters can exit the posts main gate directly onto the new Fort Drum connector, avoiding traffic lights to get home faster. The diversion of traffic to the new 4.8-mile highway linking the post to I-81 continues to increase, according to the state Department of Transportation. And as it does, businesses along routes 11 and 342 have been left in the dust.
Our sales are down 23 percent since the road opened compared to last year, said John H. Flowers, manager of Arbys restaurant, 25495 Route 11, Evans Mills. Business during the nights and lunch is down. During lunch, soldiers now have enough time to hop on the connector to Watertown, eat and be back.
Arbys is among a cluster of businesses along Route 11 that have tallied lower sales this year. Business also is down at quick-stop destinations such as the Stewarts Shop about a quarter-mile south of I-781. Last year the store commonly attracted long lines of military employees during rush hour. But those throngs are now infrequent, shift leader Cindy L. Thomson said. A portion of the soldiers who previously stopped here after work, she said, now likely are stopping at Watertown gas stations after zipping away on I-781.
Its not as busy as it was here last summer, Ms. Thomson said. When they were working on the road it was busy, and we used to get a rush. Were not as busy, but we still have our local customers.
In 2012, the average daily traffic on Route 11 near Fort Drum was 17,500 vehicles, according to the state DOT. Traffic on Route 342 was in the range of 10,000 to 14,000 average vehicles per day, while I-81s count was 25,000 vehicles. But the presence of I-781 this year will alter those figures, according Mark E. Frechette, DOT acting regional director.
Though DOT has not yet conducted traffic studies for 2013, Mr. Frechette said, what we have seen is traffic on routes 342 and 11 slow down in the spring and summer. Traffic volumes on I-781 are increasing as people get used to knowing that its there. There was a big traffic increase from January through April, and we expect even more this summer.
Traffic on Route 342 previously Fort Drums most direct link to I-81 has slowed noticeably, said Denny J. Allen, owner of Allens Budget Motel, 24019 Route 342, Pamelia. One reason for that, he said, is that northbound signs on Interstate 81 for the exit at Route 342 dont specify that it connects to Route 11.
Weve had numerous people call here and say they cant find us, Mr. Allen said. I ask where they are, and they say Fort Drum because they took the connector. I was at the state DOT the other day and said they should have a sign here directing traffic to Route 11, too. Im hearing all kinds of stories about people getting confused.
Though business is slower at the 21-room motel compared with last summer, Mr. Allen contended that I-781 is only part of the cause. While a full nest of troops was here last summer, the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum now has about 5,000 soldiers deployed between its 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams and its 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.
Its been very slow this spring, but its slow everywhere, Mr. Allen said. Weve had phone calls from military wives who went back home, and we expect them to trickle back in the fall.