Loop around Florence

Motorist drive along Texas Highway 195 through the construction project being worked on over the next several years, Tuesday, August 21, 2012 in rural Florence. The state is re-routing the highway to pass around the city of Florence.

FLORENCE — As the smell of baked muffins and breakfast wafts through Dulce Vida bakery in this town of about 1,100 residents, Angela Sapien is busy during another day of serving her customers — 80 percent of whom are commuters between Austin and the Fort Hood area.

The bakery is on the corner of Main Street and Texas Highway 195, an ideal spot for a business.

As many as 11,000 vehicles per day pass through Florence, the only sizable town between Killeen and the ever-growing suburbs north of Austin, according to state statistics.

That commuter traffic, which includes Fort Hood soldiers, real estate agents, construction workers and more, has been a blessing for Dulce Vida, said Sapien, the bakery’s owner.

However, the traffic will come to a screeching halt in about 17 months, when a new seven-mile stretch of highway is expected to be completed around Florence’s east side.

It’s all part of an Army-backed plan to widen 195 to a divided, four-lane highway from Killeen to Interstate 35, just north of Georgetown.

Even though fewer cars will pass by her business, Sapien said she’s not sweating the new “loop” around town, as many Florence residents are calling it.

“I think it’s going to be a good thing,” she said.

Sapien is anticipating her red velvet cupcakes, jalapeño bacon cheddar biscuits and other assorted offerings will encourage commuters to take the Florence exit on their way to work.

“As long as my products are satisfying to my customers,” the business will be fine, Sapien said.

The $59 million road

Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson John Hurt said the new seven-mile stretch of highway is slated to be completed in January 2014, and has a total cost of $59 million; $20 million of that was for project engineering and $39 million is construction costs. It includes multiple overpasses, topping creeks and smaller roads.

Once complete, the re-routed highway will shave a few minutes off commuters’ driving time, allowing them to bypass Florence’s two traffic signals and slower speed limit.

The plan to have a four-lane, divided highway from Killeen to Georgetown has been discussed for more than two decades, and now its end is beginning to show up on the horizon.

A 20-mile stretch of Texas 195, from north of Florence to Killeen, was finished in 2006, and the Department of Transportation has plans to begin a phase of widening the highway from Florence to I-35 in November. The entire project is expected to be completed in the fall of 2015.

Fort Hood officials also want the road widened for strategic reasons; a bigger road will make it easier and faster for Army convoys to get to I-35 and, eventually, Corpus Christi for deployment.

Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr., the commander of Fort Hood, traveled to Florence to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the seven-mile stretch in 2011, and praised “outside-the-gate folks” for moving forward with the project.

A deadly road

The widening of the highway has also been a priority of state and military officials for safety reasons.

Twenty years ago 195 was a two-lane highway between Killeen and Austin with a bad reputation for fatal accidents.

“It does have a high accident rate in Williamson County,” Hurt said, adding it’s a common route for soldiers on Friday night to get to Austin. It became notorious enough that one Fort Hood commander even disallowed soldiers from using it for awhile, according to Hurt.

“You’ve got a lot of soldiers anxious to get to Austin,” he said.

During the groundbreaking ceremony in Florence last year, U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, called the project long overdue because of the all the wrecks and fatalities in the past.

“We’ve been fighting this fight for what seems like decades,” said Carter, adding Texas 195 has “historically been one of the most dangerous highways in the state of Texas.”

Back in Florence

Florence Mayor Mary Condon said residents have been hearing about the proposed project since 1990, but her town really didn’t have much say on the issue because it is a Department of Transportation project.

She said the ongoing construction has not overly impacted the town, and residents are not griping about the project to her.

However, there is a bittersweet issue with the project: On one hand, the new “loop” around Florence will lessen the traffic downtown which wears down roads and can lead to more accidents; and on the other hand, less traffic might hamper Florence’s businesses.

So is the project good for the town or bad?

“I guess that remains to be seen,” said Condon, adding local businesses might be affected “in the short term,” but she doesn’t know how things will play out over time.

It could even bring in a couple of new businesses, the mayor said. The new portion of highway will have an exit that streams onto East Main Street, a few hundred yards from downtown. There is already one new business near the future exit — a Dollar General — and there is room for more.

Some property owners are anticipating land near the new highway to increase in value.

Despite some complaints, residents are looking forward to less traffic in the middle of town, including in front of the bakery. Fewer cars will speed through, making the quality of life a little “more enjoyable,” Sapien said.

Contact Jacob Brooks at jbrooks@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7468

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