Businesses adjust to Portage interchange project as work nears halfway point

July 3, 2018 GMT

As the Portage interchange construction project at Interstate 39 and Highway 16 reaches its halfway point, area businesses appear to be persevering, and for some, finding silver linings amid inconvenience.

“I think there was some concern and maybe even some angst at the beginning of the project,” said City of Portage Business Development and Planning Director Steven Sobiek. “Especially when the entrances to the interstate were detoured or closed down, even though it was temporary.”

On the west side of Portage, temporary stoplights were set up in May and the eastbound ramp of Highway 16 closed as part of a $1.9 million resurfacing and roundabout installation. Despite the change for drivers coming into the intersection, the Portage Police Department reported only three car crashes so far in the construction zone, with each stemming from circumstances unrelated to the road work, such as weather or drunken driving.

For businesses dependent on a smooth transit to and from Highway 16 and Interstate 39, the process has been aided by flexibility and communication.

“The on- and off-ramps have been open and truck drivers in particular, but residential drivers as well, are very savvy and I have to say that drivers will always find the path of least resistance and they will adapt to it very well, and I think that is what has happened,” Sobiek said.

Businesses have been kept abreast of the situation with weekly updates from the Department of Transportation’s project manager, who has also been informed by the businesses.

“There was a little bit of concern about, ‘How am I going to get to work on time?’ But we get weekly updates from the project manager and we put them on our bulletin board and it has worked out so far,” said Bruce Jonet, plant manager at Cardinal Glass. “We’ve had a few more people who are lost and drive through our roads because they can’t figure out where they are going, and I just talked to the project manager and asked them to take a look at their signage.”

Signs for businesses like Cimaroli’s supper club were placed near the interchange, directing traffic to La Dawn Drive in lieu of the closed section of Highway 127 where it connects to Highway 16.

“As far as the grand scheme of detours go, I don’t think this is a very bad detour because you are just detoured a couple blocks out of your way to La Dawn Drive and you are hooked up to Highway 16,” Sobiek said. “But it is an inconvenience and it slows people down and it takes more time and diligence to maneuver, and is a little bit more of a challenge for truck drivers.”

The project has hampered business at Jim’s BP at Highway 16 and Silver Lake Drive, the nearest gas station to the interchange.

“We all go through this and we all have got to take our turn around the state,” owner Jon Crawford said. “Roads have to get fixed and that is just part of it.”

Crawford estimates the business has lost 10 percent to 20 percent in sales, primarily from seasonal business, as local sales have not changed much. He said higher gas prices also may play a role in reduced sales.

“I was talking to my dad and 20 or 25 years ago, they would just close the exit and that’s it,” Crawford said. “They would close it for three months and then say ‘We’ll open it up when we’re finished.’”

Taking into account the inevitable loss of traffic, Crawford decided to renovate and reorganize the store, an approach also underway at tenant Pets of Portage.

“You’ve got to find the silver lining and the silver lining for us is that there were going to see a ton of construction workers and we also work with guys who do a lot of subbing for the projects, so we fuel the projects,” Crawford said.

On Monday, crews were running rollers over fresh blacktop covering the eastbound lanes from La Dawn Drive to Silver Lake Drive, soon to be open as crews and drivers switch gears for renovation of the westbound lanes.