Businesses seek relief as state Highway 14 work continues

Merchants air concerns about loss of customers to transportation officials

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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WASHOUGAL — Randy Dickerson expects his business to see a better 2012 than 2011. But for the owner of Washougal’s Westlie Ford dealership, that’s not saying much.

The dealer saw its year-over-year sales cut in half in 2011, Dickerson said — a drop he attributed largely to heavy construction grinding on along state Highway 14 in Camas and Washougal. And the drop came at an inopportune time, he said.

“2010 was not a banner year in the auto industry,” Dickerson said. “And we were half of that in 2011.”

Conditions have improved this year. Westlie Ford sits along the new frontage road — now finished — that is temporarily carrying all highway traffic to the south of the old Highway 14 alignment. But several of Dickerson’s business neighbors north of the highway say they’re still struggling while crews rebuild the local roads near them and drivers steer clear of the area. Some merchants reiterated those concerns during a meeting this week with Washington State Department of Transportation managers.

The work is part of a $50 million project that will transform Highway 14 in Camas and Washougal — widening the highway to four lanes, raising it up and over Union and Second streets, and installing four roundabouts on local roads as part of the new setup. The job will also widen the East Camas Slough Bridge, and install a median barrier on the West Camas Slough Bridge.

During this week’s meeting at the Washougal Best Western — another business along the southern frontage road — merchants didn’t mince words in describing their situation. One called it a “crisis.” Another said he felt like businesses are being held “hostage” as the work goes on. Quiznos franchise owner Mitch Hammontree described seeing droves of cars head for the Columbia River Gorge during last weekend’s warm weather, but barely two dozen made their way to his business, he said. Among the others closest to the work are a Burger King, Starbucks and a Chevron food mart.

Several merchants have asked about putting extra signage for specific businesses in the construction area to direct drivers their way. But WSDOT area engineer Chris Tams told the group this week that there are rules limiting signs and advertising in a state right of way, which the project must follow. Putting too much in the area would also distract from the traffic signs there to direct traffic and keep people safe, he said.

“There is a point of diminishing returns for adding signs,” Tams said.

Ailing merchants may still find some help getting motorists’ attention. The city of Washougal has tem

porarily suspended many advertising rules and fees during construction, according to Mayor Sean Guard. And at this week’s meeting, Dickerson offered his own private property to place signs for other businesses.

“For the county, it’s very important,” Dickerson said. “This is going to be an important retail corridor for Camas and Washougal. And we want to see those businesses stay.”

Meanwhile, the project continues to move toward its expected finish line late this year. Tams said paving on the local roads off of the main highway should be done within the next month, weather permitting.

Visibility has been another big concern for merchants, since a large dirt berm was put in place last year. But Tams noted that landscape won’t necessarily change. Rather, the berm represents the approximate height of the highway once it’s raised up by the end of the project. A split-diamond interchange will change the way cars get off the highway, and businesses should plan their post-construction advertising accordingly, he said.

All told, about 55,000 tons of asphalt will be laid down by the time the project is finished -- much of it on the main highway yet to be built.

“It’s going to be a very busy summer,” Tams said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.