The Highway 370 widening project meant to boost economic opportunity in Gretna is choking the flow of customers to some businesses. And with the Sept. 1 completion date having come and gone, business owners are frustrated that it's still not wrapped up.
Sales at McKinney's Food Center, the grocery store southeast of the intersection of Highways 370 and 6, have declined about 35 percent. Foot traffic has easily dropped by 600 people per week, owner Bob McKinney says.
And at least once a day, a customer will ask McKinney when the orange barrels lining the store's access points from Highways 370 and 6 will finally go away.
“It's just been a nightmare,” said McKinney, 70.
The project, which is turning 3½ miles of two-lane highway into a divided four-lane road, is now expected to be fully completed on Oct. 7. Two late changes — the Nebraska Department of Roads added a turn lane in one spot to help traffic flow and faced a utility problem in another spot where it was adding a turn lane — contributed to the delay, said project manager Derek Torczon.
“Those two things right there are huge,” he said, noting that they bumped the project's price tag to just over $17.5 million.
Surfacing on medians finished this week, and lane striping is planned for completion by Friday morning. After that, electrical and a few small items are left, including adding permanent signals between 204th Street and Highway 6 and also between 168th Street and Wickersham Boulevard.
Torczon said people can expect lane closures during the day and lower speed limits until that's completed.
The construction has already slowed commutes for tens of thousands of drivers. An average of about 11,000 vehicles per day drive on Highway 370 through the area, according to counts by the Department of Roads.
“I'm just wanting to get it done as fast as anybody else,” Torczon said.
McKinney, who's run the Gretna store since 1997, said damage to his business has already been done. Access changes have caused confusion, and while there are now ways to enter from Highways 370 and 6, customers wanting to exit can turn only right onto the highways.
McKinney said the Roads Department promised that orange barrels along Highways 370 and 6 would be gone early this week, but they're still there.
With the construction, the convenience of running to McKinney's for a gallon of milk disappeared, and customers dispersed to Walmart near Highway 370 and Interstate 80 and Hy-Vee near 180th and Q Streets, he said. He's unsure whether customer numbers will bounce back once the construction is officially done.
“We'll find out if we'll be here six months from now,” McKinney said.
Diane Saigh, the owner of D and K's Gretna Cafe, said the project is the topic of conversation among her dining crowd each weekday. Many are concerned about the safety problem posed to drivers, particularly at night, by the constantly rearranged orange barrels.
“If you don't know the road good enough, you're going to knock one down,” she said.
The restaurant's new location — it moved in October from behind a Phillips 66 southwest of the highway intersection to a new spot northeast of the intersection — seems to attract better business. But Saigh is disappointed that a project once expected to finish early now is past deadline.
“It's like, 'When is this road going to be done?' ” she said.
The pain hasn't been as significant this year for Vala's Pumpkin Patch. Barricades were removed around 180th Street, where customers enter Vala's off Highway 370, a week ago, the day before it opened for the 42-day season.
“They didn't do it any sooner then they had to,” owner Tim Vala said.
Vala said he asked the Department of Roads for a longer south turn lane off of Highway 370 onto 180th Street. But the turn lane was built the same size as others along the highway.
He sees it as a problem because the majority of his 200,000 visitors each season enter that way.
“You get three or four school buses in there, you've pretty much filled up that turning lane and you've got a jam,” he said.
Gretna Mayor Jim Timmerman said the concerns of business owners were taken into consideration at the start of the project, and workers waited to address areas that could cause trouble to businesses until the last leg.
Dirt work for the project, which is in its third construction season, originally began in November 2010.
“Unfortunately there was some disruptions, but we tried to make it as smooth as possible,” Timmerman said. “It's been painful, but we're ... getting a lot closer to the end.”
City Administrator Jeff Kooistra said “everybody's looking forward to seeing (the project) done,” notably developers interested in pursuing projects along Highway 370. Aspen Creek, a new subdivision near 192nd Street north of Highway 370, has already started grading.
Kooistra is also looking forward to spring, when funds to landscape Highway 370's new median can be put to use.
McKinney said those future projects worry him because they could require lane closures and again affect his business. But he's not ready to think about the next project.
“The joke in town is that they can build an outlet mall faster than a section of highway,” he said, referring to the Nebraska Crossing outlet mall along Interstate 80 that started construction in June and is set to open in November.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the project's total cost.