Jim Lerua has conquered numerous challenges since he first opened the doors of his southside body shop more than 35 years ago. But this year, he's expecting the greatest hurdle yet.
Like many businesses in the area, Lerua fears that the closure of the Palo Verde Bridge will force him to shut down his business.
"I rely heavily on people's ability to get to our shop," said Lerua, who employs 15 people at Smith Martin Paint and Body Shop Inc., 3747 S. Palo Verde Road. "All I know is this is going to be a year from hell for me and a lot of my neighbors."
Pima County is closing down the bridge this Monday, June 7, to begin building its replacement, the Veterans' Memorial Overpass.
County officials declared the current bridge, built in 1956, distressed and in need of replacement after a routine bridge inspection in 1993. Today, emergency vehicles can't cross the bridge, because it can't bear the weight.
"This will be a much better bridge and a much safer bridge," said Pima County Supervisor Ramón Valadez, a Democrat who represents the area.
The new bridge will feature four through-traffic lanes (two lanes in each direction), a shared-use pathway on one side, pedestrian facilities, landscaping and public art. There will be new traffic lights at Palo Verde Road and 36th Street, as well as Palo Verde Road and 37th Street/Golf Links Road. Pima County is contributing 10 percent of the estimated $22.6 million cost, while the federal government is funding the remaining 90 percent.
But it will take at least a year to tear down and replace the 48-year-old bridge, which last year carried an average of 33,500 vehicles a day over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and Aviation Parkway. During construction, Pima County will close the bridge and detour traffic from both directions, so the only way for people to cross the Union Pacific railroad tracks will be to go west to Kino Parkway or east to Alvernon Way.
Local business owners wanted to keep the bridge open during construction, but that would cost the county an additional $4.3 million, require six months of additional construction time and risk the safety of construction workers and motorists, according to Pima County Department of Transportation Administrative Support Services Manager Rene Gastelum,
"The bridge is already distressed," he said. "There is no way it could support the weight of all that traffic on two narrow lanes."
While county officials recognize the impact the closure will have on Palo Verde business owners, they say they can't give them a direct subsidy to make up for lost business.
"Believe me, I know the impact on these businesses is going to be huge, and if there were any other option, we'd do it," Valadez said. "But we just have no choice other than to close the bridge."
Annabelle Quihuis, community relations specialist for the Pima County Department of Transportation, said that the county is working closely with the community to help minimize the impact on businesses as much as possible.
The county has set aside $30,000 for signs to help direct traffic to local businesses. This signage is in addition to the 357 directional signs already developed by the county at an estimated cost of approximately $100,000.
"We are developing monthly business outreach workshops; we are putting together brochures and detailed maps; and we have hired a county representative dedicated to businesses' concerns," Quihuis said.
Local media outlets, including Cox Media, Clear Channel radio and Arizona Lotus, are offering group advertising rates to help local businesses advertise during the bridge's closure.
Quihuis said the county is encouraging Palo Verde businesses to unify and get better organized among themselves. She points to the example of the Campbell Avenue Business Partnership, a nonprofit organization which was formed along Campbell Avenue between Grant and Fort Lowell roads in reaction roadwork in the area. The businesses have worked closely together to hang banners, create brochures and market their shopping district.
Cheryl Farkas, a Campbell Avenue Business Partnership board member and vice president of Jody's Framing Gallery, 2654 N. Campbell Ave., said she doesn't think some of the businesses could have survived without the partnership.
"The construction could have destroyed some of us, but instead, it made us all stronger," Farkas said. "I hope those poor (Palo Verde) businesses can have the same success."