223rd business owners wonder about traffic flow during underpass project, which still doesn't have solid starting date
by: Shanda Tice, Balwant Bhullar, left, owner of Fairview Chevron and Fairview Subs at 223rd and Halsey Street, is concerned that a nine-month road closure to widen a railroad underpass will significantly affect traffic flow to their businesses this summer.

On any given day, the crossroads of 223rd Avenue and Halsey Street in Fairview processes thousands of cars. Businesses located in the area reap the commercial harvest of trucks traveling north, south, east and west.

Some business owners are concerned, however, about how they'll fare when the flow from one direction slows to a trickle this summer. A project to widen the antiquated railroad underpass near Bridge Street is slated to go to bid in July. Multnomah County transportation officials have said the narrow underpass will be closed to through traffic for as long as nine months while it is restructured to accommodate wider driving lanes, sidewalks and bicycle lanes.

Balwant Bhullar, owner of Fairview Chevron and the adjacent Fairview Subs at 1605 N.E. 223rd, is concerned the closure will alter driving habits and seriously undermine his bottom line on gasoline. He has to take in more than $13,500 a month to clear a profit.

'It's not going to be enough,' he said of the lessened traffic flow. 'I'm not going to make that much money if they close it that long.'

The project is one of two the county is undertaking this summer to improve traffic flow from Sandy Boulevard and the Blue Lake Park area to Halsey and other thoroughfares south of Interstate 84 and the Union Pacific railroad tracks. The other project, slated to begin and end this summer, involves widening and upgrading the 223rd and Sandy intersection. That project will not close either road, county transportation officials said.

Ed Abrahamson, principal planner with the Multnomah County Transportation Department, said both projects are on schedule. However, Nebraska-based Union Pacific needs to give approval before the bidding process can begin on the underpass plan.

'We're hoping we can stay with our timeline' to begin bidding in July, he said. 'We can't do anything until we hear back from the railroad.'

He admits the underpass project, which he estimates would commence around September, could affect nearby businesses.

'They will lose that pass-through traffic,' he said.

Bhullar knows how even a small change in traffic patterns affects his customer base. After the county installed a concrete street divider in front of his station about a year ago, his gasoline sales noticeably decreased.

'Before they put the divider on 223rd, I was doing 7,000 gallons a day,' he said. 'Now it's down to 4,000 gallons.'

While he acknowledges traffic will continue flowing along Halsey Street and south on 223rd, the county-recommended detours - on 207th and 238th avenues - will alter routes from Sandy Boulevard and Marine Drive toward Gresham. Several of his regular customers reside near Vancouver, Wash., he said, and take Marine to the 223rd underpass to points west and south.

Barbara Sellers, owner of Divine Mocha just northeast of the Chevron on 223rd, shares Bhullar's concerns. The project will ultimately improve traffic flow, she says, but the intervening work time will be difficult on small businesspeople.

'It is a worthy project,' she said. 'It will be wonderful in the long run.

'It's a matter of how we can do this without businesses dying. If businesses die as a result of this project, it's not good for the overall situation.'

While understanding the business community's concerns, Abrahamson noted the project brings a potential new wave of customers.

'The coffee shop on 223rd will be negatively impacted,' he said, but Sellers 'will have some ready customers down the road to market to.'

With a closed underpass and a sign at 223rd and Halsey indicating 'local traffic only,' vehicle traffic will certainly diminish by Sellers' shop. At the same time, she realizes damage could be mitigated by the presence of hungry road contractors. Sellers is hedging her bets by adding food items - including waffles for breakfast and bean-free chili boats for lunch - to Divine Mocha's selection of coffees and teas.

Fairview Mayor Mike Weatherby plans to work with business owners and city officials to help affected businesses stay afloat during the underpass construction phase. Additional signage is one of the possibilities discussed at a recent county-sponsored orientation meeting, but city officials, he said, are unclear as to when the project will get under way.

'It's hard to help people when you're not sure when something's going to happen,' he said, noting he's working to improve communications with county transportation officials. 'In terms of helping our people, we're gonna have to be the ones to do it.'

Once traffic-detour patterns are established throughout several months, Sellers says, some drivers may not return to their old routes.

'When (the underpass) is closed, people who normally stop will have to choose another way,' she said. 'The likelihood is that they won't go out of their way just to get a cup of coffee.'