Dirt creates quandary for Washougal Quiznos

Mound brought in for Highway 14 work obscures it, other businesses, owners say

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter



Camas-Washougal widening and interchange

What: Widening state Highway 14 from two lanes to four from the end of the West Camas Slough Bridge to just east of Union Street. Includes construction of a new bridge, parallel to the existing bridge on the east end of Lady Island, and construction of a split-diamond interchange at Union Street and Second Street.

Construction start: Summer 2011.

Scheduled completion: Winter 2012-2013.

Information: SR 14 — Camas-Washougal Widening & Interchange.

Washougal merchant Mitch Hammontree hopes that a project to improve safety on state Highway 14 doesn’t mean the end of the road for his business.

The owner of a Quiznos franchise north of the Second Street exit said restaurant sales are down 50 percent since the beginning of 2011, when crews brought in a 25-foot-tall mountain of fill dirt for the project. Hammontree claims the material hides his restaurant from customers, more than a third of whom he estimates are Highway 14 travelers heading eastbound for sightseeing in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

“The problem is, nobody knew they were going to put the big mounds of dirt there,” said Hammontree, who opened the restaurant in May 2008.

Dropped off a year before it was needed, the dirt was not expected to cause any problems, said Chris Tams, an area engineer with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

“We didn’t think it would be an impact to anyone in that location,” he said, adding that the highway project has been a topic of public discussion for more than a decade.

“We had a lot of things to convey to the public and get feedback on,” Tams said.

The state started work in July on the $50 million project, which expands the highway to four lanes and raises it above grade to form safer crossings at the intersections at Second and Union streets. Each intersection will be outfitted with a pair of roundabouts -- one for each side of the highway, said Abbi Russell, a transportation department spokeswoman.

She said transportation officials are recycling the pile of dirt -- about 50,000 cubic yards -- from a widening of Highway 14 near the Cape Horn viewpoint that included two pedestrian tunnels underneath the highway.

By reusing the excavated material, “We figure it’s about a half a million dollars in savings for the taxpayers,” Russell said.

In the meantime, the Second Street Quiznos has gone from a profitable business to operating in the red for the last year, said Hammontree. He called a Wednesday meeting to discuss the project with nearby business owners and city officials.

“We wanted to put something together; to get some kind of agreement for how we could solve this,” he said.

Otherwise, Hammontree predicted his business will not outlast the construction, which general contractor Tapani Underground Inc. of Battle Ground expects to finish late this year.

“By then we’ll be closed,” Hammontree said. “That’s just the bottom line.”

Tapani Project Manager Darren Cahoon said the wall of dirt will eventually be used to finish building the roundabouts and elevating the highway.

He confirmed the material arrived months before his company won the contract for the project. Bids went out for proposal in April and the dirt was dropped off three months earlier, in January. It has been sitting in front of Second Street for more than a year, Cahoon said.

“That’s evidently the only place they (WSDOT) could put it,” he said. His crews are just about ready to use it now, he added, estimating that the pile would be gone by September.

It would translate to another six months of obscurity for the Quiznos, which has left Hammontree and other business owners wondering if they are eligible for compensation to make up for their losses.

That just doesn’t happen, according to Russell and Tams.

“WSDOT does not compensate businesses for lost revenue,” Tams said.

Russell added that every project has some effect on drivers and businesses along the route.

“We just need people to know we’re alive and well,” said Jim Graybill, who owns a convenience store on the northwest corner of Second Street and state Highway 14.

At the very least, he would like to have signs placed along the construction detour -- a route on Frontage Road, which runs parallel to the south side of the highway. The signs would direct traffic to the Second Street businesses.

“People are not going to come in if its not convenient,” said Graybill, 70, who also claimed a 50 percent drop in sales at his business, called Jimbo’s Chevron Food Mart and Deli at 165 C St.

Hammontree agreed that getting to his business is anything but convenient, complaining that potential lunchtime customers don’t have time to get from the industrial park south of Highway 14 to Quiznos via the detour. Drivers there have to maneuver through a rough Second Street cutout and flagging crews who are directing traffic around a project to move a huge underground natural gas line.

“It can be anywhere from a five-minute to 10-minute delay,” Hammontree said.

Russell said postponements are not uncommon with projects as large as the state Highway 14 upgrades, which will include a new bridge next to the East Camas Slough Bridge.

“We have to continue building these projects so that businesses can continue to have the customers get to them and drivers can have a safe trip,” she said.

Editor's note: This story has been modified to reflect a correction. Second Street businesses claim they are being affected by the highway project, which will build new interchanges at Second and Union streets.