BURLINGTON — Local business owners told government officials during a roundtable discussion Tuesday that they've seen revenue and customers dwindle since the Interstate 5 bridge collapsed last week.
Nearly 300 local business people and government officials packed into the Burlington City Council Chambers to share their concerns with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen and hear updates on the economic impact of the collapsed bridge and resulting traffic that has been rerouted from the highway to side roads.
Pam Nelson, owner of Foothills Toyota in Burlington, said tractor-trailer traffic that's been funneled along Burlington Boulevard has helped contribute to an 80 percent drop in auto sales from what 15 local auto dealerships saw at this time last year. She said the dealerships collected $68 million in sales tax revenue last year.
“Watching (Burlington Boulevard) this morning, it’s absolute gridlock. You can’t get in, you can’t get out,” Nelson said.
Nelson proposed that truck traffic be directed to alternate routes.
But state Department of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said many sharp turns on county roads are too tight for tractor-trailers to navigate. In addition, the bridge that crosses the north fork of the Skagit River near La Conner may not be able to handle the volume of truck traffic diverted from the highway.
The highway closure also has impacted manufacturers trying to ship product via truck.
David DeWitte, president and CEO of Pacific Woodtech Corporation, located north of the bridge in Burlington, asked if the ports of Seattle and Tacoma could extend their operating hours so more truck deliveries could be made at night in lower-traffic conditions.
DeWitte said in a personal interview that 90 percent of his company’s engineered wood products travel south along Interstate 5 for delivery, with a large number exported from the two ports.
He said traffic congestion resulting from the bridge collapse has cut the company’s usual weekly shipments in half, as trucks can now make only one southbound delivery per day instead of two.
“It effectively cuts our business in half," DeWitte said. "In Western Washington, freight logistics are key to our economic vitality."
Larsen said he would talk to the ports to see if they can extend their operating hours.
During Tuesday's discussion, Larsen updated the group on the collapse investigation and timelines for a temporary span and permanent solution.
At the meeting, Larsen announced that the state Department of Commerce has issued a $150,000 grant for businesses in counties directly affected by the bridge collapse to help bolster their marketing presence.
Grant money will come from the state’s Economic Development Strategic Reserve Account.
Skagit, Whatcom, Island and San Juan counties will use the grant to fund a marketing campaign, which will likely be coordinated through the Economic Development Association of Skagit County.
The marketing campaign will aim to inform the public that area businesses are open and accessible through alternate traffic routes. Local economic development partners and business leaders will help come up with the plan and put it in motion, Larsen said.
Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton said the city would help fund the campaign with a $20,000 pledge, noting the city’s heavy reliance on retail sales.
On Friday, Burlington City Administrator Bryan Harrison said $750 million in retail activity takes place within his city every year.
Larsen said he is working to make federal loans available for small businesses, agricultural operations and private nonprofit organizations economically affected by the bridge collapse through the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.
The loans are only available after a formal disaster declaration is made. As soon as the full impact of the bridge closure is understood, Gov. Jay Inslee may seek a formal disaster declaration from the administration, according to a Tuesday news release from his office.
The loans are administered directly through the administration and are intended for businesses that cannot make obligations and necessary payments.
Larsen said the loans are only available if businesses cannot secure financing through other means, and rates cannot exceed 4 percent.
“The basic message I have is that Skagit County is open for business,” Larsen said. “It may take you a little longer to get to your favorite restaurant, it may take you a little longer to get your groceries, but these businesses are still open."