Business owners concerned about impending Molalla Avenue closure
The city of Molalla announced that construction is about to begin on a new traffic signal at Molalla's central intersection, Highway 211 (Main Street) and Molalla Avenue.
For some, this is welcome news as the busy four-way sees not only heavy local traffic but also through-traffic along the highway. But for downtown businesses that have suffered amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction and associated road closure weighs heavy.
The project, overseen by Oregon Department of Transportation and headed by I&E Construction, is set to begin on June 7 and continue through mid-September.
The highway is expected to remain open throughout construction with flaggers as necessary. But with the city's permission, Molalla Avenue will be closed to vehicle traffic from Second Street to Ross Avenue "as needed for construction work and staging of materials," the city said in an announcement.
The reason for the closure is so that construction can occur during daytime and nighttime hours to allow for quicker project completion, City Manager Dan Huff pointed out.
"Normally, a signal project would take 9-12 months," Huff said. "In this case, the project will take about three months."
Huff said it's too early to determine what the "as-needed" closures might look like, but it is possible that there will be some opportunities for through traffic. According to Public Works Director Gerald Fisher, construction will not inhibit foot traffic in the area.
But businesses are worried about customer accessibility as the closure comes after an extended Molalla Avenue closure in 2016-17 that lasted longer than expected and reportedly turned the nearby business section into a ghost town.
Of course, the closure also comes on the heels of the COVID-19 crisis that has shut down local businesses and reduced their services.
"My fear is now that we have been able to open back up a bit (we are still at 25% capacity here in Clackamas County), that we will lose what we have started to gain back," said Sarah Quier, owner at Wildhorse Bar and Grill. "For most of us, that will be a harder hit than it normally would have been. Most people use the street parking for the bars and restaurants in the center of town. There is a city parking lot, but that did not help us much last time."
Quier wonders if there's a better place for equipment storage than on the street.
The project has been identified as a need in the city's transportation plan since 2003, Huff said, and the city has communicated with the public about the project for more than a year. But according to business owners, the city has not recently contacted them about the upcoming Molalla Avenue closure.
"I understand that it was publicly announced and that there have been meetings about this, but most of us small business owners have been so busy trying to survive the COVID shutdowns that we have not had time to keep up with everything," Quier said after a 16-hour workday.
The signal is a requirement of the Cascade Center Development to address traffic congestion and the future failure of the existing intersection once the Cascade Center Development is open for business, according to Fisher in a seven-point memo he wrote Wednesday, May 26 to address apparent misinformation circulating on Facebook.
The city is not in charge of the project, Fisher noted. Rather, the Oregon Department of Transportation is the permitting and regulatory authority over Highway 211 and all its intersections with city streets.
Fisher also said the contractor has agreed to work with local businesses in the affected area for deliveries and will contact those businesses to provide information on coordination and to address any concerns.
Finally, he noted that the cost of the signal is being shared between the Cascade Center developer and the city, and the ongoing maintenance cost will be shared by ODOT and the city. He said the project is not redirecting funds that could be used to fill potholes on the highway, as ODOT is responsible for all highway maintenance.
Business owners showed up at the Wednesday, May 26 council meeting to express concerns, with Bentley Feed owner Ashley Bentley as the spokesperson who gave public comment. Mayor Scott Keyser asked Fisher to meet with Bentley about the concerns.
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