Dave Seymour, owner of Tim’s Automotive Repair and Mobile, looks out onto Bowen Road and wonders where his customers are.
Seymour and other business owners situated on Bowen between the Quarterway Bridge and Caspers Way face more than 18 months of road turmoil as the city embarks on the largest infrastructure project in its history.
The $10.4-million project, scheduled for completion in the fall of 2012, will see the expansion of the Quarterway Bridge and widening Bowen Road to four lanes.
But before the bridge work commences this summer, the city is upgrading sewer, storm and water systems, as well as relocating hydro, cable and phone components in an 800-metre stretch from Caspers Way to east of Buttertubs Drive.
“People think of widening the road and replacing the bridge and wonder why it takes so long, but there is so much more to it,” said Jan Mongard, project manager.
“Anything that is awaiting upgrading because of age or capacity is put on a to-do list that continues to grow. In this case, all the utilities of storm system, sanitary system, watermains need upgrading, but every project needs a trigger to get it to the production phase.”
The trigger that pushed the project’s priority ahead for the city was the bridge. The 1939 structure over the Millstone River sees up to 16,000 vehicles a day and is at the end of its lifespan.
“That is the critical part in kicking the construction of the project off,” said Mongard. “But when you look at the roadway component, you take a close look the utilities present and future. The pavement, sidewalks and landscaping is really cosmetics. The hard work takes place in the ground.”
And it is the work underground that has some business owners worried.
Seymour said he was told by the city the impact on Bowen Road businesses was going to be minimal.
“They were going to keep the traffic flowing through Bowen Road and once the new road was done, they were going to put in a frontage road along the businesses where people can turn into,” he said. “The end result is great. It’s certainly going to improve the area, but I have concerns.”
The first phase of the work includes watermain upgrading at the intersection of Pryde Avenue and Bowen Road and a few weeks into construction, Seymour has seen a drop in business.
He said the same thing occurred when sewer lines were moved on the east side of Quarterway Bridge last September.
“There was nothing they could do to keep our driveways unobstructed,” he said. “Now we have to live with this until fall next year.”
Seymour has assurances the city is going to work with the businesses, but he’s not sure if the right message is getting out to the customers.
“They say they want to keep traffic flowing through the area, but if you go down Wakesiah, Bowen Road, Northfield, they’ve got all these signs advising people to choose an alternate route,” he said. “The city wants to work with us and the first thing they do is to tell traffic to stay away from the area.”
Gail Avender, co-owner of the Vancouver Island Thrift Store, saw business drop 20 per cent from the start of construction, but sees the problem as public perception.
“Customers are saying they’re avoiding Bowen Road due to backups, but they don’t realize there is little if any traffic congestion,” she said. “Traffic is moving fine and if anything, right now it’s easier to get in and out.”
Avender estimates traffic on Bowen Road has decreased by one-third, which is good for the construction project, but not her business.
“In one sense, the city is keeping what traffic there is flowing, but their signs advise drivers to choose alternate routes. How is that helping us?”
Mongard agrees it’s a fine balance between the construction schedule and production rates the city wants to realize, and maintaining access to businesses.
The city has provided signage advertising businesses are open and will do some utility work between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
A vehicle access gate is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Bartlett Street, providing another route to get to the Quarterway Pub, Nanaimo Athletic Club and nearby businesses including Seymour’s shop.
“Everybody is on board to make it a win-win situation,” said Mongard. “That seems to be the prevailing attitude.”
Mark Marais, owner of Nanaimo Athletic Club, said communication from the city has been good.
“I think my landlord has been better informed, but he passes the information on to me,” he said.
The vehicle access off of Bartlett Street is going to help with congestion, but he is not concerned customers will have a tough time getting to the club.
“We’re particularly busy in the evening and most of the road work should be shut down by then.”
Scott Margerison and his family live on Bartlett Street adjacent to the pub and gym, and is of two minds regarding the new vehicle access to the businesses.
“I understand from a business point of view you want to maintain a flow of traffic and customers,” he said. “If it was my business, I’d want to create a bit of ease for my customers.”
But the once quiet, no-thru street now has the potential for increased traffic and he has some safety concerns.
The Margerisons found out about the new gate from a city information handout in their mailbox two days before it happened.
“I know I wouldn’t have a say in it, but it would have been nice to have a little more notice,” he said.
Still Margerison feels the city is doing the best it can.
“They posted 30-kilometre speed signs and no-parking signs went up,” he said. “I don’t know if you can expect too much more.”
Other information available to the public besides signage posted on Bowen Road includes the city website (www.nanaimo.ca/goto/BowenRoad) with updates on day and night traffic flow, bus services and more. As well, there will be a construction webcam where people can view real-time action of the work.
Bruce Munro, owner of Able Trophies, said the city was extremely helpful, showing him the plans for the project and helping with signage.
He doesn’t anticipate the road work to affect his business too much and he is in favour of the project.
“A lot of our business is ordered online and then the customer drops in to pick it up,” he said. “As for road delays, it is what it is. It can be a dangerous road and the work needs to be done. You can’t stop progress.”
Mongard knows the importance of keeping the residents and business owners happy and believes the final result will be good for the city.
“Two years from now this will be a memory – a blip of construction work,” he said. “People will enjoy a much safer roadway for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians with proper lighting, proper sidewalks and all the things that come with a major roadway.”
Avender understands the project needs to be done, but comparisons to what shop owners on Vancouver’s Cambie Street went through during the Canada Line transit project between 2005 and 2009 have been discussed.
“We’re down 20 per cent, have started cutting staff hours and we still have bills to pay and staff to pay,” she said. “We need people to shop and we need people to donate items. We need people to know traffic is flowing on Bowen Road.”
Seymour said his biggest concern is if businesses are negatively impacted to the point it’s hard to keep the doors open, what is the city going to do for them.
“I’m not just responsible for myself. I have three employees who have families. I’m their bread and butter,” he said. “Two weeks into construction and I’m in survival mode. I have to think ahead. I can’t wait until I’m losing thousands of dollars.”