Business owners worry about SR-14 traffic delays

Meeting with WSDOT representatives could be scheduled

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A flagger at the 100 block of "C" Street, in Washougal, temporarily slows traffic as crews from Northwest Natural Gas relocate a gas line in preparation for construction of a roundabout. Several business owners in the vicinity of the road work recently talked about seeing fewer customers.

As the work to widen state Route 14 continues, several local business owners say they are being affected by the project.

Earlier this month, traffic was shifted to a new southern frontage road while crews reconstruct the highway between the east Camas Slough Bridge and Second Street. The route takes drivers through two roundabouts at Union and Second streets.

That project is scheduled for completion later this year or early next year, according to Abbi Russell, communications manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation Southwest Region.

Mitch Hammontree, owner of Quiznos in The Crossing, hosted a meeting with other business owners Wednesday, which also included Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, City Councilman Paul Greenlee and Camas City Councilwoman Linda Dietzman.

Hammontree said he remains frustrated with the tall mounds of dirt located between the highway and his business.

“We are now at a critical mass,” he said.

Hammontree has reduced the number of his employees and the hours of operation in the evening. He said he emailed the Department of Transportation about the dirt affecting his business, and he found out about the “TS, tough stuff, rule.”

Jim Graybill, owner of Jimbo’s Chevron, called Hammontree about their mutual concerns.

“We employ local kids,” Graybill said. “The economy was bad enough.”

Hammontree said concerns from him and other local merchants went unheeded a year ago.

“We need a resolution,” he said.

Hammontree said traffic delays caused by flaggers are resulting in a reduction in sales. He mentioned he used to see 30 to 40 Georgia-Pacific employees a day eat at Quiznos. Now, he notices two or three.

Graybill recently laid off three employees. The 24-hour gas station now operates with a seven-person staff. Two of the full-time employees have had their hours reduced.

Graybill told one of the flaggers it could be intimidating for potential customers to see a flagger standing in front of an entrance to the station.

Rhonda Webster, manager of Jimbo’s Chevron, said business there has decreased 70 percent.

“Once customers establish new routines, they won’t come back,” she said.

Graybill agreed.

“We used to be a convenience store,” he said. “Now we are an inconvenience store.”

Paul Varsek, owner of American Marble & Granite, agreed that customers cannot see his business sign because of the dirt, and his sales have decreased.

Russell said the dirt will be used as fill and excavated in stages as crews build embankments for the highway and the new on- and off-ramps.

That will take place over the rest of this year.

“The dirt berm is about the same height that SR-14 will be once it is raised up and over Second Street,” Russell said. “So once the project is complete, the businesses at Second Street won’t have the same visibility they may have had when SR-14 was at ground level.

“We will be installing “Motorist Information Signs” [about food/gas/lodging] on SR-14 as part of this project, so that is one way the businesses can make sure drivers know they are there,” she added.

Gunnar Grant, owner of Napa Auto Parts, in Camas and Battle Ground, said his local business is surviving with wholesale deliveries.

Harry Hajari, an owner of the Best Western Parkersville Inn & Suites, said the walk-in traffic at the hotel has decreased from 12 to 13 rooms per night to two or three. He said customers who book rooms ahead of time by phone tend to stay one night and then change their plans.

Occupancy rates for February and March have been down 20 percent.

Hajari tells customers how to get to the convenience store when they want food.

“They get lost and scream at us,” he said. “It’s a big mess.”Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Brent Erickson suggested State Department of Transportation officials meet with local business owners, Washougal and Camas City Council members and the Port of Camas-Washougal Commission. That meeting has not been scheduled.

As of Monday afternoon, WSDOT representatives had not heard of the meeting request.

“No additional meetings are planned at this time,” Chris Tams, Columbia Gorge area engineer for WSDOT, said by phone. “We’re going to put up signs, saying the [Second Street] businesses are open.”

The orange and black signs will be located along the frontage roads.

Tams met with city of Washougal representatives and business owners in July 2011, at Quizno’s.

Russell said it has been about a decade that WSDOT has been working on the project.

“We know this project is impacting businesses and drivers,” she said. “What we’ve heard from the community is to get in and out as quickly as possible.

“We’ve been aware of the concerns,” Russell added. “It’s impossible to provide these types of safety improvements without impacting residents, businesses and drivers. Everyone who relies on this transportation system is going to be impacted directly or indirectly. We do our best to minimize these impacts, but we can’t avoid them.”

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