Jan. 26, 2005 - River Road has as many twists and turns as the winding waterway for which it is named. The road also will have its share of rough water during the next 20 months or so.
Businesses along River, from Campbell Avenue to Alvernon Way and along Alvernon from River to Fort Lowell Road, are going to be awash in a sea of orange cones as the county works to widen, realign and make structural changes to the so-called River Bend Roadway Improvement project.
The project is in the bidding stage now. The Pima County Department of Transportation is expected to select a contractor by early February. According to department spokeswoman Carol Anton, construction will begin when the county issues a notice to proceed in early March, and is expected to be completed in October 2006.
Aspects of the $18 million project include:
€ Doubling the current travel lanes to two in each direction, plus a center turn lane on River from Campbell to Alvernon.
€ Installing six-foot paved shoulders with sidewalks on each side on River from Campbell to Alvernon.
€ Extending Alvernon from its current intersection at Fort Lowell northwest across the Rillito River, with a new bridge connecting it to River Road near Dodge Boulevard.
€ Creating the Brandi Fenton Memorial Park at the future intersection of Dodge, River and Alvernon, in cooperation with the Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department.
€ A landscaped and raised middle median on Alvernon from River to Fort Lowell.
€ Using asphalt-rubber asphaltic concrete as the paving surface throughout the project, which reduces roadway noise.
€ Improving drainage along the route, including the Camino Real and Finger Rock washes.
Technically, this project has two phases, but both are being bid together and constructed jointly. The projects are considered to be on-schedule.
Work on the first phase will not begin for at least six more weeks, despite the construction travelers along the route can see now.
The present construction is utility work, Anton explained, and it is not exactly the type of utilities many businesses along the route had in mind.
"On most of these projects, most of the residents want the utilities to go underground," she said. "It's very expensive to do that and I think on some of the projects we started, we were trying to accommodate for that but … it's extremely expensive and a lot of times they're very high-power sources that need extra casings and some of it you can't put underground."
James A. Mather is an attorney and accountant who owns a practice along the construction route and also owns another building west on the street. He said the utility work has caused entrances to his parking lot to be closed without prior warning and virtually all of his clients to be delayed because of traffic back-ups along the route.
"I am very frustrated by the county's inability to manage this project in any kind of a timely manner," Mather said. "If you go to any meeting and ask a question, it's like a first impression, like they never thought of that before."
Mather also took issue with original plans that would have shifted the roadway about 15 feet into his property, wiping out a row of parking, because of a historic fence in front of El Corral restaurant.
The issue eventually was settled when the county transportation department paid the restaurant, which is across River from Mather's office, to relocate its fence, according to River Bend Roadway project manager Pat Buckley.
Mather also shares a complaint with other businesses along the construction path: traffic.
Michele Cox is the manager of Calico Corners Fabrics & Furniture, at the corner of Campbell and River.
She said the construction disrupts "a very strong thoroughfare that connects the Foothills customers to our store."
While her store weathered construction when the Campbell-River intersection was under repair, she said any inconvenience to customers directly affects the store's business.
"When (the intersection) was torn up, you couldn't figure out how to get in or out of here and they closed off some of the entrances," Cox said, adding that loyal customers found a way to get to the store but that it made soliciting her store more difficult.
Emily Perkins, a front desk worker at Gadabout Salon & Spa along River said the utility work already has prompted changes at the salon.
"We've asked some of our stylists to mention to people to come early," she said. "We are constantly getting complaints. At least once a day, (traffic) is their excuse for coming 15 or 20 minutes late."
Added Mather: "I have not had a client show up on time."
The Rio Vista apartment complex already has been thinking of a strategy to attract potential renters during the long construction period, said Justin Ball, a leasing consultant and complex resident.
"We're trying to offer incentives," he said, saying some prospective renters ask how long the construction is expected to last when they inquire about renting at Rio Vista. The best he can say, he said, is "we're hoping it will be better."
On the up-side: "It helps slow them down, slow enough to read the signs," he said.
For current renters, however, the traffic can be a true inconvenience, Ball continued.
"Turning left, it can probably take up to 10 minutes. Sometimes you'll get a nice person who will actually stop and let you in," he said. "Turmoil, it's been turmoil."
Ball also said a Rio Vista resident was involved in a crash several weeks ago, when the road in front of the apartment complex was torn up and traffic lanes were reduced, which likely was the result of impatience.
Ball said the most he is hoping for is that construction will be done in pieces rather than the entire stretch of roadway being torn up and then left unfinished for months.
"We're hoping it will start at Campbell" and work eastward, he said.
Farther east, the River Bend Roadway Improvement will realign parts of River Road. Alvernon also will be extended, including a span over Rillito River.
These projects are intended to make the route more safe and less congested, according to the county, while also maintaining the rural feel of the sometimes-twisty and narrow River Road.
Throughout the course of construction, one lane of traffic in each direction will be maintained, as well as a center turn lane wherever possible.
For continuing updates on the project, visit www.roadprojects.pima.gov/riverbend/.