Betsy Jenkins walked up to the car with Illinois license plates in the It’s Your Party parking lot, almost as dismayed as the driver, who couldn’t get to Bavaria Sausage just 100 feet away.
His choices were to walk through a construction area or get back on Nesbitt Road, drive southwest to Maple Grove Drive, north to County Hwy. PD and around to the other side of Nesbitt Road – a 10-minute trip, according to Google Maps.
“Every day, we have some,” Jenkins, the owner of the event planning and production company said as she watched the driver instead turn onto Allegheny Drive.
That detour – rather than the one the city prescribes – has been since July 10 the fastest way around from one side of the Nesbitt and Fitchrona roads intersection to the other. It will remain so until October, when the new roundabout is expected to be complete.
Business owners near the intersection told the Star they understand a change was needed. The four-way stop has led to backups during rush hour every weekday.
But they’re disappointed in some of the city’s communication, including signage now that work is underway.
“Better signage would help a lot,” said Bavaria Sausage president Judy Cottrell.
Jenkins said she’s had drivers come through as fast as 50 mph, and they have sometimes directed their anger at not being able to get through the intersection at her and her employees.
“I just know that this has been really challenging,” she said.
The timing adds to the difficulty. Not only is the summer a busy time for It’s Your Party deliveries, Bavaria’s summer brat cookouts and Felly’s Flowers, but the Verona Road reconstruction project is still going, leaving drivers trying to get to Verona or into Fitchburg with limited options.
“It’s a double whammy,” Cottrell said.
City of Fitchburg project engineer Bill Balke pointed out that the city delayed the construction by two weeks from its initially planned June date to allow the Williamsburg Way bridge across Verona Road to open — offering one slight relief to frustrated drivers. And contractors are “still on schedule to open Oct. 2.”
The $1.6 million project needed to be done this year to use funding from the tax-increment financing district that covers the nearby Orchard Pointe development, which has increased traffic in the area, Balke explained. City officials knew that project deadline about two years ago, he said.
“We worked backwards from there and worked with the (state) Department of Transportation and other regional projects that are going on,” Balke said.
Verona Road Business Coalition project manager Cindy Jaggi is helping the city with its outreach to businesses, and she has dropped off maps for them to help visitors navigate the various projects. She said she’s seen “a lot of creative and innovative” initiatives, like loyalty cards at nearby Quivey’s Grove and changes to start and stop times for employees.
She acknowledged it’s been especially hard for the restaurants and service industry businesses, but she said “destination businesses” like Ten Pin Alley are holding strong.
“Everybody’s really working very, very diligently to communicate with their own customers and patrons,” Jaggi said. “They’re doing everything possible to keep communicating that business is open.”
Bavaria put its own sign on the city’s “Local traffic only” sign that’s about a half-mile from their store, showing it’s still open. Despite that sign, and a similar one on the other side of the roundabout down the road from Felly’s and It’s Your Party, it seems many drivers expect to be able to get through the intersection.
“Basically our parking lot is one big turnaround,” Cottrell said.
‘Needed to do something’
While the construction is an inconvenience, the business owners who spoke with the Star understood why the project was needed.
“Traffic in the springtime would back up past our garden center, in all directions, for a mile starting at 4 p.m.,” said Felly’s Flowers president Jim Aldrich. “I think this will alleviate most of the problem.”
Cottrell said Bavaria ownership knew the city “needed to do something” because of how backed up the intersection was – she was never able to turn left out of their parking lot when leaving around 5 p.m.
She’s not confident a roundabout was the right decision, preferring a mini-roundabout or traffic signal, the other two options the city considered. Balke said the roundabout was the best option of the three, and the consultants report the Common Council looked at in April 2018 showed it would be less expensive than traffic signals despite the extra land acquisition that was necessary.
Roundabouts can be more difficult for pedestrians to navigate and challenging for drivers to learn, but traffic accidents are generally much less serious because of the lower speeds.
“It just made more sense in the long term to have something that had traffic that was flowing better and less chance of bigger accidents,” Balke said.
‘Everywhere’s ripped up’The logic behind the decision and timeline doesn’t alleviate the frustration for area businesses.
It’s Your Party employee Melinda McDonald has added about 15 minutes to her commute in both directions now. She has to go through the backed-up, under construction intersection of Verona Road and County Hwy. PD and then has to travel a mile further west to Maple Grove Drive to get around the Nesbitt-Fitchrona work.
She’s noticed she has company, as “everybody’s have to go the same way to get where they’re going.”
Jenkins said “everywhere’s ripped up,” causing them to add time to their deliveries, too.
She showed off the entrance to her business’ parking lot that was graded in late July so drivers could get to the loading dock and pointed out they also have to move the construction signs themselves when they’re leaving the site.
For Bavaria, Cottrell has decided to consider canceling the remainder of the planned brat cookouts, which normally are a twice a week feature throughout the summer.
At Felly’s, Aldrich said they’re losing out on the end of their busy season, with annuals and perennials in August and garden mums and asters normally popular through September.
“It’s affected us greatly,” he said. “It’s a real inconvenience.”