WASHOUGAL — The wait is over: Many commuters Wednesday will take their first drive on a new, elevated state Highway 14 through Camas and Washougal.
The shift marks another major change for the area, which has gradually transformed since the $50 million highway improvement project began construction last year. It also comes as a welcome relief to business owners on the corridor who say they've been battered by detours and visibility and access issues.
"It was a tough haul for a while there for a lot of folks," said Dave Fletcher, whose One Stop Home Furnishings sits just north of the highway.
The Washington State Department of Transportation has cited safety as a main motivator for the project, which eventually will widen the highway to four lanes from the end of — but not including — the West Camas Slough Bridge to Sixth Street in Washougal. Crews also added new median barriers to the corridor and raised a section of it by 25 feet.
For several months, all highway traffic in that area had been diverted to a frontage road — and two roundabouts — south of the highway. This week's shift puts vehicles back on the main line for the first time since early March.
The new setup carries Highway 14 up and over Union and Second streets, connected by a split-diamond interchange. Transportation officials and local leaders cut the ribbon on the new highway Tuesday, and expected to have traffic back on the main line late Tuesday night. Only two lanes will be open at first, according to WSDOT.
For some local merchants, the change is met with guarded optimism. Mitch Hammontree, who owns a local Quiznos franchise, said just about anything would be an improvement over what he and others have already been through.
"It can only get better compared to what it was," Hammontree said. "It nearly choked the life out of us."
Several business owners reported a large drop in sales while traffic was detoured off the highway, or motorists just generally chose to avoid the area altogether. WSDOT and private landowners recently put up signs to help steer people toward those businesses, particularly on the north side of the highway, but Hammontree described the effect as "minimal."
Merchants and local officials offered universal praise for lead contractor Tapani Underground Inc. and how they've worked with neighbors throughout the project. Hammontree said WSDOT could have shown better communication and flexibility.
During a ceremony on the highway Tuesday, WSDOT regional administrator Don Wagner gave a nod to the businesses that have endured difficult conditions during the construction effort.
"It's tough. We know it's tough," Wagner said, "Hopefully this new project … will help get them back closer to normal."
The job isn't finished yet. Crews still have to complete paving and other work before leaving the site for good. The entire project is expected to wrap up next year.
WSDOT hopes the area won't have to wait that long to see improved safety. That stretch of Highway 14 has recently seen close to 50 collisions per year, or about one per week, Wagner said. Some crashes have proven fatal.
Fletcher, the furniture store owner, said he's delighted to see the project closer to completion. Several local leaders described their own experiences on a thoroughfare that's long been considered dangerous.
"It needed to be done," Fletcher said. "It was a safety thing."