Mike Gray had a sense of what was coming before most people did.
Gray, of Sourland Cycles in Hopewell Borough, had known for some time that the Hopewell-Rocky Hill Road bridge over Bedens Brook, on the eastern end of the borough, was on the list of area bridges that were in need of repair. He had learned it while researching potential bike routes through the region.
There were further hints when PSE&G moved its utility poles back from the road in January. “Then you knew sooner or later, this bridge was going to go,” Gray says.
However, Gray and other business owners in the borough say they had no official word of the pending closure, from the county, municipal governments or anyone else, until signs went up shortly before construction was set to begin. Nor did they know until then that the project would take an estimated five months to complete. The road is closed to all traffic until work is complete.
The impact of closing one of the only ways into town has been significant for many businesses in the borough, with many reporting declines ranging from 10 to 40 percent, with fears that it could get worse.
Exacerbating the problem is Hopewell’s isolated location in northern Mercer County. The borough has relatively few roads in and out of town. The detour of Princeton Avenue to Cherry Valley Road to Province Line Road is 3 miles long, and the light on Cherry Valley Road at rush hour is a long wait under normal circumstances.
“Customers come in and say, ‘Oh my God, how is this detour affecting you? It took me 30 minutes to get here from Princeton,’” Gray says. “We’re very grateful they’re making the trek, and we’re very grateful they’re concerned about us. We’ve had a few people ask us if we could stay open a little later because they can’t get here sooner. Of course we’ll wait.”
Gray hasn’t crunched the numbers in terms of lost business yet, but says weekday traffic in his shop is definitely slower. “Weekends have stayed strong-ish, but it’s springtime in a bike shop,” he says. “If we’re not busy (now), we’ve got problems.”
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Two separate bridges cross the brook at the construction site. At the time the project started, one of the spans had a sufficiency rating of 58.2 out of 100, and was considered functionally obsolete. Both will be replaced with single-span, precast concrete.
The county awarded the contract for the work on Jan. 24 to Midlantic Construction LLC of Barnegat, which had submitted a bid of $2,016,962.82.
Ellen Abernathy, of Boro Bean, says her café has seen its biggest decline in business in the 7 a.m. hour, when she’s used to serving commuters on their way to work. “That part we’re definitely taking a hit, but then later we’re doing fine,” she says. “We’re down a little bit, but I don’t think it’s tremendous.”
But many businesses in town have seen measurable declines in sales since the road closed the second week of March. Jon McConaughy, of Brick Farm Market, estimates that he is down 30 to 40% compared to last year, and he says other businesses, like Antimo’s Italian Kitchen and Michael’s Deli, are down as much or more.
“Back of the envelope, collectively we’re losing somewhere between $10-15K a day,” McConaughy says. “It’s really hard to come up with a real number because as a business, you expect to be up year over year.”
McConaughy also owns Brick Farm Tavern, which is on the other side of the detour in Hopewell Township. He says the detour has less of an impact on the restaurant because of the nature of dining out versus shopping.
“When somebody goes out to dinner, detours are not that big an issue. They’ve already made a decision,” he says. “The issue really is commuter traffic in town.”
McConaughy questions why the project was given a 150-day time to completion, considering the impact that the road closure has had on the community. Adding to his fears is the separate and even more onerous truck detour that has been posted, requiring trucks to use Carter Road and U. S. 206 to get around the construction.
“Some businesses are starting to hear from their suppliers they’re going to have to raise delivery charges, because volume is going down on the orders and they have to drive extra time to get here,” he says.
The 150-day time to completion feels that much worse when people consider what happened with the Alexander Road bridge between Princeton and West Windsor. That bridge also had structural defects, but because of its importance in keeping traffic moving in rush hour, down in busy Princeton, it was repaired in less than two weeks.
McConaughy says he has met with county officials to discuss the idea of expediating the Bedens Brook bridge repairs, but there is no process in place for such a thing, and so far he has been unable to make anything happen.
Abernathy said she’s determined to stay positive. Although she didn’t know about the closure until a few weeks before it happened, she says she’s not sure what she would have changed if she had known. She has adjusted her staffing in response, but she says regulars still come in, maybe even more regularly in an effort to support the businesses in their difficult situation.
“We’re trying to be as positive as we can and keep things going,” she says. “I do a lot on social media. We really can’t change the situation…we’ll get through it. “Once it opens up again, I think people will readily come back.”