By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
CLEARVIEW — Some merchants say their business has dropped off dramatically since the state began working last summer on widening Highway 9 in front of their establishments.
Left turns into four businesses — Number 1 New York Pizza, Tonnemaker Farms Organic Fruit and Produce, Clearview Cut-n-Style and Amish Country Originals — have been blocked by orange barrels in the median. The state plans to build a concrete curb to permanently prevent left turns.
“They’re basically choking the life out of us,” said Eric Francis, who owns the pizza restaurant with his wife, Diana Zaldana. “We’ve put our life savings into this place.”
State transportation officials say that among other reasons for widening the highway, preventing accidents is paramount.
“Our first priority is safety,” said Kris Olsen, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. “A center median with controlled access locations makes it safer.”
Olsen said the plan was aired at public meetings between 2008 and 2010 and discussed directly with property owners. Merchants say they didn’t know it was coming.
The state is spending $57.1 million to widen Highway 9 from 212th Street SE to 176th Street SE. Work began in 2011 and is mostly finished. Just north of 180th, where the businesses are located on the east side of the road, the northbound side is widened only for a short distance and then tapers back to one lane. It won’t be completed on that stretch for some time, Olsen said.
That’s because the Transportation Department doesn’t want two northbound lanes abruptly squeezing into one lane at 176th, she said. The extra lane won’t be added until the state is able to follow through on a long-term plan to widen the next stretch of Highway 9, north from 176th to Lowell-Larimer Road. It’s unclear when that will occur because that project has no money, Olsen said.
Business owners point out that a lane currently is provided for drivers to turn left into a strip mall with an Albertson’s supermarket and other stores, just north of 176th. That lane is not part of the new project, Olsen said, and will likely be eliminated when the work goes through that stretch.
Merchants say southbound customers have complained about having to go to the light at 180th and make a U-turn to come back. A few still make the left turn by illegally cutting between the barrels, Francis said.
He said his revenue dropped from a gross of about $3,400 per week to $1,500 to $1,800 in the fall.
Tom Pentecost, owner of Amish Country Originals furniture, said his business was down about 50 percent this past holiday season compared to 2012.
“We’re all concerned,” he said.
The orange plastic barrels were set up around September, Francis said, and yet the concrete curb still hasn’t been built.
This was done because other work was going on, including paving on the southbound side, Olsen said.
“It’s really a matter of safety for our workers and for drivers so they know it’s a construction zone,” she said.
Olsen said when the work is done it will help businesses because drivers won’t have to make tricky left turns across traffic. This contention is backed by a recent study by the Federal Highway Administration titled, “Safe Access is Good for Business,” she said.
Zaldana said they can’t afford to wait.
“We’re a small business,” she said. “We survive by people coming in every day and this takes that away from us. All we want is a turn lane. We just want access.”
Olsen said that from 2000 to 2005, the stretch from Highway 522 to 212th saw 240 accidents. After the road was widened and a median curb installed, the number dropped to 111 in the period from 2008 to 2013, she said.
The merchants are skeptical. They say fender-benders have increased since the work began.
Olsen said state officials understand that construction can be hard on businesses. She said there’s no compensation system in place for those that are affected.
“The work that we do is for the public good. There’s some give and take in there,” she said.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.