Businesses troubled by bridge closure

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 24, 2012

By Karissa Minn
SPENCER — A group of local business owners have convinced state officials to steer traffic back to the north side of Spencer.
Pat Ivey, division 9 engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, says the Wil-Cox bridge should open to two-way traffic within a month, as work continues to replace it.
Until then, transportation workers have placed signs on either side to direct local drivers to businesses on U.S. 29 in Spencer.
On Monday, Ivey said the state hopes to decide this week whether to install traffic signals allowing one direction of traffic at a time, or to repaint the roadway and allow both directions at once.
“We’re going to do one or the other,” he said. “We are looking at that as a result of some concerns that we heard from the business community out there.”
Giving voice to those concerns was Tiffany Tucker, owner of Fusion Salon in Spencer. She noticed that businesses like hers on the northern end of U.S. 29/70 have been struggling since April.
That’s when transportation department closed the northbound bridge that crosses the Yadkin River, preparing for its demolition and replacement. The Wil-Cox bridge continues to carry one lane of southbound traffic, but drivers headed north are now diverted to Interstate 85.
“We have no traffic down here,” Tucker said. “Two businesses have already closed, and two are on the verge. Something needed to be done, badly.”
Tucker created a petition and copied it for nearby businesses, where their owners, employees and customers signed it. She collected a stack of papers with several dozen signatures and called her state representative, Rep. Harry Warren.
Warren asked if she could meet with him and Ivey the next day.
Tucker said she scrambled to get about a dozen merchants together for the Wednesday afternoon meeting. Their case was apparently so convincing that she didn’t even need to present the petition.
“She did an excellent job of organizing the affected parties, getting in touch with the right officials and having a well-organized campaign to get some resolution to the issues they’re having,” Warren said.
He said he’s glad he could be a part of the state’s efforts to help.
In October 2011, when the Wil-Cox bridge was closed for structural repairs, Spencer aldermen asked the state to install signals that would alternate traffic flow across it.
“The DOT’s original conclusion was not to, citing concern about confusion to motorists,” said Spencer Town Manager Larry Smith said in an email Friday.
Instead, the department opened only one direction of traffic across the Wil-Cox bridge, which Davidson County plans to convert into a pedestrian bridge when the project is done.
But as state officials relocated utilities and tried to work out an agreement with the railroad, Ivey said, “it took us significantly longer than we anticipated.”
Work is cleared to begin on the replacement within the next few weeks, he said, but it will take another 18 months to open.
At last week’s meeting, local business owners told him they can’t wait that long.
Most of their customers come from Davidson County, Tucker said. While they can travel southbound across the bridge now, they now avoid it because they don’t want to come back north on the interstate. Meanwhile, people coming from Rowan drive around the area entirely.
Tucker said Spencer Hardware and the Country Cupboard BP have already shut down.
Ivey said the state didn’t know about – and wants to minimize – the project’s impact on local businesses. Transportation officials are again considering traffic signals, but they’re still concerned about causing delays for drivers waiting to cross the 1,300-foot bridge.
They’re also discussing an another option, Ivey said, that would allow northbound and southbound traffic to cross on one span at the same time. Ivey said a temporary median may need to be added for safety reasons.
In his email to the Salisbury Post, Smith thanked Tucker, other business owners, Warren, Ivey and the Spencer town board for the parts they all played in getting the problem addressed so quickly.
“This will inevitably prove a huge relief to the businesses on our north end,” Smith said, “and is the perfect example of a very positive, successful grassroots effort!”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.