When Caltrans Closed the Bridge Between Rio Dell and Scotia Without Much Warning, Business Dropped and Owners Are Scared
“I really wanted to offer something…unique and personal and found Rio Dell to be a perfect fit for the type of business I was looking to open,” Morse explained. “Now I feel very scared that something like a painting project…could destroy everything.”
After the first day of full closure, Morse said she discovered that she was bringing in an average of $150 per day less. “It is awful,” she stressed. “It was like instantaneous. It wasn’t gradual.”
Dorothy Johnson who has run D.J.’s Burger Bar in Rio Dell for 21 years agreed in an interview this weekend. “We are not even at a quarter of what we usually do on a Saturday,” she worried. “I will be lucky to make wages and pay for the food that I sold.” She added tightly, “Usually Saturdays are booming days.”
April Ash who runs Emerald’s Edge Boutique, a gift store that began about three months ago, said that when the shop first opened, business was doing “pretty well.” However, Ash said no one warned her that the bridge would be closed. She said, on Monday the 12th, she noticed business was really dead. Tuesday, she said, the shop was empty. Wednesday, she said she went out to look around and “What the heck? I saw a sign that the bridge could be closed ’til November 1.”
Rio Dell’s City Manager, Kyle Knopp blames Caltrans. “From our perspective, we didn’t receive any notification,” he said. “We learned from an alert bus driver looking for an alternative route.”
Knopp explained, “We understand that the bridge has to be maintained but we were disappointed that there was no notification either directly to the business owners or to the city or that there wasn’t even considered to have one-way controlled traffic as an option.”A spokesperson for Caltrans, Myles Cochrane, said the job requires stripping the paint, cleaning the bridge and painting with multiple coats. In addition, the bridge must be completely wrapped so that everything is contained to protect the river.
Cochrane said that having one-way controlled traffic through the bridge could extend the length of the paint job to two years. “That could waste taxpayer money,” he explained.
Caltrans is sympathetic to the businesses and has already met with those who are worried, Cochrane said. “We absolutely realize that it is not ideal,” he explained. “We understand the concerns of the public there.” But, he said, the detour is relatively small. “This is one of the shortest routes,” he pointed out. “People who need to go from Scotia to Rio Dell, they can just hop on 101.”
Accommodations have also already been made for non-vehicle traffic to continue on the same roadway. “Pedestrians and cyclists will be able to cross the bridge throughout the length of the project (and [through] an enclosed walkway when painting occurs),” explains a Caltrans post on Facebook last Thursday.
Cochrane also said that Caltrans is willing to work with the owners to do even more to alert the public to their options. “We updated the changeable message signs already” to make the detour more clear, he said. “We are going to look at updating the language on Quickmap. We are going to make a plan to make periodical posts saying these are the exits you should use.”
UPDATE: Caltrans said that electronic signage posted the closure about two weeks previous to the job fully starting. Cochrane said, “[T]he CMSs were up as of the morning of Tuesday, February 27.”
Morse, the Green Bean owner, is still worried. “Right now if it is not tourist season, I can’t imagine my numbers changing from any kind of signage,” she says. The locals know the options, she points out. But they don’t want to use them because they are inconvenient.
Johnson, who owns D.J.’s, said she knows the commute firsthand. “I buy my hamburger fresh every day from Hoby’s, [a market in Scotia],” she explained. “It isn’t that long. Probably 10 minutes extra round trip.” But she says that extra ten minutes can be hard on people commuting during a lunch hour. “The guys from the [Scotia] Mill will come over and grab lunch,” she said. “It takes longer because they have to go up the freeway and backtrack.” In an attempt to help, she has told her regulars to call in their orders and she’ll have their food waiting when they get there.
City Manager Kevin Knopp is hopeful though. He said that prior to the bridge closing, “The city going into the summer was in the best position that it has been in for quite some time since probably pre-recession.” The new cannabis zone at the north end of Rio Dell in the Eel River Business park “has piqued interest,” he explained. He has hopes that, in spite of the bridge, the impact of construction crews working there through the summer will help mitigate the slowdown in business from the bridge work.
“There will be construction crews out there and getting lunch,” he explained. “Initially, there will 50,000 square feet of manufacturing and value-added, Knopp said. Later, he said there will be more. This, he said, will add “between 50 and 100 living wage jobs” to the local economy. “There is the potential for prosperity for the city out of this. This is about survival not just for Rio Dell but the county as a whole. We have developers with incredible visions that include cannabis tourism.”
However, Ash, the gift shop owner, is still very worried. She said the bridge closing is destroying businesses at the south end of town. “People…use to come off the freeway and drive through town,” she said. “Now there is no traffic flow.”
She added, “I wouldn’t have started a business there knowing [the bridge] was going to be closed…Right next to us is a business that just opened…Since they started to work on the bridge, we’re both slowly dying.”
She said she used to have between five to eight customers per day. Now, she says, “It’s basically down to nobody.”
Morse, owner of the Green Bean, says as a business owner facing the next year it is hard. She explained, “You are not even wondering if it is going to be bad. You know it is going to be bad.” For new businesses, she worries, it will be especially hard.
“How many will be left at the end of six months?” she asked.