As they continue to struggle with a slow, uncertain economic recovery, downtown Vancouver businesses and building owners learned Thursday about another troubling issue they must cope with.
The massive Columbia River Crossing will have a big impact on them, but there is still no timeline for work on the $3.5 billion project, three managers of the project told members of Vancouver's Downtown Association.
About 150 people attended the group's quarterly meeting at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, which featured officials who described the project's huge role in relieving a regional chokepoint for thousands of Interstate 5 commuters and freight traffic hauling some $40 billion in goods annually. But small business owners are worried about the project's effect on their shop or restaurant, office or building, said Matt Brislawn, owner of Briz Loan & Guitar at 506 Washington St.
He foresees permanent damage to his business, which is located just off the southbound ramp to I-5 along the CRC project's proposed light rail route.
"I'm at ground zero. I'll lose all of my parking," Brislawn said.
Some business disruptions may be avoidable, said transportation officials, who repeated the phrase, "mitigate impacts" during their 50-minute presentation.
The trio of speakers were Nancy Boyd, project director for the CRC's Vancouver office; Kris Strickler, project director from the CRC's Portland office; and Matt Ransom, a project manager from Vancouver's Department of Transportation.
CRC project leaders are unable at this time to provide more than a vague timeline for the project's start because they must first get state and federal funding in place, Boyd said. That budget will start with whatever each state contributes, which is why CRC officials said they're doing their best to educate legislators from both Washington and Oregon in order to raise funding for the project. Its scope includes replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge, extending light rail to Clark College, and rebuilding freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River.
"That funding triggers the rest of it," she said of the project, which also will rely on tolling as a third source of funding.
No firm dates
In the spring, Boyd expects project officials will request qualifications from potential contractors for the design-build project — a contract where both the design and the construction are the responsibilities of the same contractor.
Without a contractor in place, "We can't begin these detailed discussions," Boyd said. "We would love nothing more than to be able to give you firm construction dates, but until we have funding, we can't."
She does not expect the project's construction to start in the downtown core, but rather at the Columbia River, where crews will build the actual bridge. However, Boyd said she does expect downtown businesses to notice construction staging areas in the city center as early as next year.
"It will place some strain on local businesses and people in the downtown area," she said. "We want you to know we are dedicated to working with your business and understanding your needs."
Despite his concerns, Brislawn said after the meeting that he was encouraged by the city's discussion of a possible supplemental mitigation fund, which could provide marketing and other resources to businesses affected by ongoing construction.
"I can tell you the (Vancouver) city council has tasked me with investigating this," said Ransom, who was recently appointed as the city's community liaison for the CRC project.
Boyd said transportation officials hope to continue the conversation they started on Thursday with downtown business owners.
Brislawn, who owns the building that houses his 17-year-old business, worries that he'll lose his musical instrument pawn shop that draws about half of its clientele from Portland.
"That is my biggest concern if they move this project forward," he said "that small downtown businesses survive."