It had the makings of the biggest beef of the year, a giant punching bag for civic frustration over traffic delays in searing summer heat.
Halfway through the project, the $10-million overhaul of Overlanders Bridge hasn’t given pundits much ammunition to lob at the City.
When Mike Ward appeared before City council recently, his reaction to the bridge project took the politicians off guard.
“I just wanted to tell you guys how great of a job you’ve done on the Overlanders Bridge,” Ward said.
Ward operates Reubin’s Diner, a popular stop for hearty food just a couple of blocks off the Tranquille Road overpass.
Ward was braced for a blow to his business with the traffic constraints and so many drivers choosing to steer clear. He opened the diner in 2012 and recalls the impact of having the Tranquille overpass closed temporarily.
“I know you hear the negatives,” he continued. “I think you guys went above and beyond to make sure communications were good and all the bases were covered. I think you guys should pat yourselves on the back.”
Mayor Peter Milobar expressed surprise. This was not the usual tone of delegations approaching council.
“My initial thought was, ‘Oh, no, here we go,’ ” he said with a grin.
“The only thing I’m disappointed in, the media saying how difficult it is to go to the North Shore,” Ward added.
Some businesses blame media hype, including bridge cams, news media and Facebook, for exaggerating the situation in the first place. All of the warnings have led customers to simply avoid the bridge altogether.
Several of Ward’s immediate neighbours are inclined to agree on that point.
“It’s not so much the traffic flow, it’s the media hype,” said Alanna Smith, owner of A Cut Above hair salon. Facebook posts and gossip have been as negative as warnings on the radio.
When the overpass was closed, her business dropped 70 per cent.
“We had customers phone us and say, ‘I’m not coming over the bridge.’ ”
“This is going to be the fourth year of business interruption,” said Renato Uliana, who owns Sorriso Pasta & Deli along with Bruno’s Cold Beer and Wine Store. “Why do two major infrastructure projects in one year,” he objected. “My worst fears did come true.”
About 80 per cent of his customers cross Overlanders Bridge for lunch. Even with short delays of five or 10 minutes, those customers feel they don’t have the time. He thought bridge construction workers would help make up for the shortfall, but not one has come in.
When the overpass was closed for more than five weeks, he should have temporarily closed, he said. The Tranquille Corridor Revitalization project had a severe impact on Bruno’s, where business was down by $140,000.
With another three months to go on the bridge project, he continually reminds his customers how much he appreciates their patronage.
Some merchants with specialized products and services, such as Norkam Lock and Cycle, haven’t noticed an impact.
“It affects us hugely,” said Wendy Warkman at Sippers Winemakers. Her regular customers remain faithful but she’s not seeing new customers. “That’s what you need to build a business.”
“It’s been ugly, but I figured it would be bad because I lived through the last one,” said Terralee Koenig, owner of Cost Savers. Her business was down by 48 per cent when the overpass was closed. Even when it reopened, business was still down by 26 per cent last month. During the protracted revitalization project, she lost 60 per cent of her business.
The successive blows, together with a profound shift to online purchases, have convinced her it’s time to move on. She’s in the process of handing it over to a not-for-profit group.
While the traffic delays have not been as long as she thought they would be — she commutes over the bridge — many motorists seem to have over-reacted and simply do not use the bridge.
That’s what most owners agree on: Negative publicity, not the actual traffic situation, has been the bane of their existence.
“People don’t even come down here because they think it’s horrible,” Koenig said.
Most waits are between 5 and 10 minutes on average, and there are no significant waits for much of the day. During peak hours there can be longer waits.
After he gave his public thanks to the City, Ward acknowledged that his diner business has been affected by the construction, but an expanded catering service on the side has compensated.
However, he feels the City learned from the 2014 closure, when the overpass was temporarily closed for repairs. This year, they were prepared with improved communications.
Overall, Kamloops drivers have it fairly easy, which may partly explain the over-reaction.
“I get customers from Vancouver who say this is nothing,” Ward noted.
Mistakes learned from Tranquille upgrade
North Shore businesses are inclined to feel a sense of deja vu with the impact of Overlanders Bridge construction. After all, they’ve been through this several times before.
This summer, though, the mistakes of the past have been duly noted and measures adopted to offset the impact of traffic constraints, said Steven Puhallo, general manager of the North Shore Business Improvement Association.
First it was a semi-trailer that struck the Tranquille overpass in 2012, requiring its closure for repairs. Then the Tranquille market upgrades kicked in in 2013, dragging on unexpectedly into 2014. Contemplating a fourth consecutive year of disruptions, they had to do something to counter the impact on businesses.
As it has turned out, traffic delays have been minimal outside of peak traffic hours. Motorists can usually expect waits of two to five minutes.
“Our biggest thing that businesses have been telling us is that the worst-case scenario didn’t happen. What we’re probably seeing is the best-case scenario,” Puhallo said.
After the Tranquille Road upgrade dragged on for six months longer than expected, the NSBIA met with City staff to consider ways of avoiding the compounded impact of the bridge upgrading.
For its part, the association developed its Shop, Stay and Play campaign, encouraging customers to stay on the North Shore. The campaign continues with renewed emphasis in September.
“From the start we said to the City that there are three things really important to us,” he explained.
First, communicate with businesses to keep them in the loop. Second, look at the contract tender to see if the work can be speeded up. The City was able to stipulate a six day a week schedule with an option to work around the clock if the schedule demanded it.
“That was happily surprising.”
Third, set the one down time and stick with it, which has been the case.
“It was a big learning experience,” Puhallo said of the Tranquille corridor upgrading. “Both of us learned from some of our mistakes and mishaps.”
One of the key concerns for North Shore business is that the marketing helps counter the effect of successive traffic constraints and how they have influenced public perception. In other words, they don’t want to see temporary disruptions spawn permanent changes in shopping behaviour.