Tourists stop for the sights and the gridlock in Branson

Popular Mo. destination weighs elevated train in effort to ease traffic

July 31, 2006|By TIM JONES | TIM JONES,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BRANSON, Mo. -- They creep along the three-lane strip with the vigor of a funeral procession, gawking out their car windows at the street-side wonders - new or forgotten - that make this Ozark town noted for B-grade entertainment a world-class player in traffic congestion.

If you come to Branson, make sure the tank is full and patience is abundant because it can take an hour to make the seven-mile trek from the store boasting "16,000 Square Feet of Crafts and Gifts" to the end of the road, a little ways past the fake Titanic.

Traffic is getting worse here, which is why people in the rustic, isolated heart of the Missouri Ozarks are exploring the construction of the big-city potion to ease traffic: an elevated train.

This could not have been foreseen by generations of trout and bass fishermen who came here for the quiet and seclusion. Even after the Mabe family formed its jug band, the Baldknobbers, in 1959 and planted the seed of entertainment-for-profit in an old barn near downtown, no one could have anticipated more than 7 million people descending annually on a town inhabited by about 7,000.

This is not, however, a classic American tale of lost rural innocence, polluted by the onslaught of tawdry entertainment that draws hordes of crabby tourists who soon wished they had stayed home. This is Branson, where increasing numbers of people seem to accept gridlock as the price one must pay for "Foot of chocolate, 99 cents," the "Amish and More" store and live, homespun entertainment from dozens of theaters.

In response to congestion, Las Vegas has a monorail. Some of the more popular national parks, overwhelmed by car traffic, have buses to cart people around. An elevated train, making 11 stops along the strip, might provide relief in Branson, but it's not at all clear that people who flock here would be inclined to abandon their cars. Something would be lost from the experience.

"That's one of the problems we have," said Michael Rankin, Branson's economic development director. "We tell people about alternate routes and how they can avoid the congestion, but they want to drive the strip. They want to see what's new."

Branson is not an obvious eye-pleaser. The strip, a state highway, could easily be called McFuddruckerKingWay, dotted with wax museums and believe-it-or-not tourist fare that can be found in such places as Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Niagara Falls. But the shopping and the country-western and family-values-type entertainment found in 45 theaters are a huge and growing tourist draw.

More attracts more in Branson. As new entertainment venues arrive, more people come. Traffic congestion is what persuaded Vee Vorhis to open a shop a year ago (next to Dixie Stampede) that specializes in putting the John Deere logo on just about anything.

"People know when they come here that they're going to be in traffic," said Vorhis, adding that his business is doing well.

Rankin, a St. Louis native, is accustomed to maddening interstate backups, rude drivers, middle digits and occasional road rage. Such behavior is a rarity in Branson, which proportionately receives more visitors than Las Vegas.

"It's as if there is an unwritten rule of being courteous in Branson," Rankin said. "I don't think anyone can explain the traffic oddity here."

Amid clogged traffic, drivers will suddenly stop on the strip to let people pull out in front of them. Effectively telling those behind them to cool their jets, drivers will stop to let others make a left-hand turn, and recipients of the kindness will enthusiastically smile and wave their appreciation, even to the point of rolling down their windows in stifling summer heat.

"You don't see many middle fingers greeting you in Branson," said Jerry Adams, the town's communications director.

There is the occasional disruption. Branson police reported last week that a 39-year-old man was taken into custody after threatening someone with a gun. The cause of the trouble, the department said in a statement, was "the way the victim had been driving."

To be sure, visitors don't enjoy the congestion. So they endure it.

"What can you do? You're almost a prisoner of it," said Rita Burns of Peoria, Ill., who was visiting Branson with her mother.

In the crush of development, logic suggests there is a breaking point approaching. Transportation studies have ranked Branson as the fourth-most-congested tourist draw in the nation.

"Traffic is an invitation to developers to come," Rankin said. "Sooner or later, mass transit will have to be addressed here."

But not before Branson Landing, a sprawling entertainment/shopping/condominium/hotel complex, opens its convention center next year. Rankin expects it will draw an additional half-million visitors.

Tim Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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