O’Neal Lane work hurting businesses, owners say

The seemingly endless road construction on O’Neal Lane is doing what may be irreparable harm to small businesses that line the street, some business owners said.

About 25 representatives of restaurants, a strip mall, shops and other businesses crowded a Monday night meeting at Rice and Roux restaurant to ask officials from the city-parish and the engineering firm overseeing the project what could be done to help them weather the extended traffic backups and inconvenience posed by the ongoing construction.

Michael Lane, who owns LA Boilers on O’Neal Lane, said the project is hurting his business.

“We are getting a screw job here, and we want somebody to admit it,” he told Michael Songy, a representative from CSRS, the company overseeing the city-parish’s Green Light Plan, of which the O’Neal Lane project is a part. “This is our livelihood.”

Lane brought a red notebook in which he said he noted how business was doing every day. He read from a day in January 2011.

“Road construction killing business,” he read. “Traffic is at a crawl.” Lane demanded to know why the project was taking so long.

Other business people at the meeting echoed Lane’s concern.

“This is just us being ticked off,” said Rebecca Maginnis, who co-owns the Renew Day Spa on O’Neal. Maginnis said her business was down at least 25 to 30 percent because of the construction.

Currently, drivers in both directions on O’Neal must make U-turns if they wish to visit businesses on the opposite side of the road from the side they are driving on.

The U-turns are inconveniently placed, said Maginnis and her business partner, Crystal Winstead.

“We phoned a bunch (of customers) and they said they were just trying to avoid the area,” Winstead said.

Lane, Maginnis, Winstead and others bemoaned the long delays that have pushed project completion dates back to the end of this year.

“We were informed it was going to be three months, it’s been six months and now we are being told November,” Maginnis said.

Travis Woodard, of CSRS, told the business owners that the project was expected to move into its final phase in July, and they hoped to complete it by the end of the year. The project began in September 2009 and the original projected completion was September 2011, he said. The original cost was $27 million, he said.

Songy said many of the delays were caused by problems with utilities.

“The majority of the delays were (caused by) utility relocation,” he said, referencing AT&T. “They said we were free to construct.”

When construction crews discovered a utility line, they had to request that the company that owned the line come and move it before work could continue, he said.

“The utilities are private,” Songy said. “The city doesn’t control them, we don’t control them.”

Other delays were caused by weather, including 17 days rained-out in January, said Ron Payne, the construction manager for the project.

Lane demanded to know why the work could not be speeded up.

“Why can’t you work at night?” he asked Songy.

That would make the project much more expensive, Songy replied.

“Somebody’s got to help us,” Maginnis said. “This isn’t our fault but we are the ones paying for it.”

Lane asked if the city offered some assistance to help the businesses mitigate losses caused by construction.

“Is the city of Baton Rouge willing to help us by bearing some of the burden and by putting its money where its mouth is, or are we on our own?” Lane asked.

Songy demurred, and said he would visit with the contractor performing the work — Barber Brothers — to see if there are ways to accelerate the work. But, he said, “what we have out there is how we can get it done the fastest.”

Songy promised to get back with the business owners with some answers to their questions “hopefully in a couple of weeks.”

When complete, O’Neal Lane will have two lanes of traffic moving in both directions with a raised median and turn lanes, said Ingolf Partenheimer, the city-parish’s chief traffic engineer.