Stalled Highway 98 project blamed for lost sales

VSALEXIQUE — Sales are down significantly at the Asadero Neighborhood restaurant. But this time it’s not because of pandemic restrictions. Nor are inflation or supply chain issues to blame.

On the contrary, the drop in the number of customers is said to be due to the Highway 98 widening project which is taking place right outside Asadero’s front door and which has been stalled for a few months.

“Sales are down about 70 to 80 percent,” said Liz Zepeda, owner of Asadero. “The worst part is not knowing how long the project will be on hold because a (construction) contractor cannot be found.”

About two months ago, the project’s contractor, Irvine-based Spectrum Construction Group Inc., abandoned the project funded by the state Department of Transportation to make improvements to a section of State Route 98 between Ollie and VV Williams avenues.

Due to the “extraordinary” circumstances the businesses find themselves in, Crossroads Plaza mall property manager Ben Horton said he plans to file a lawsuit with Caltrans in a bid to recover lost revenue he attributes to blocked construction project.

Businesses in the Crossroad Plaza area near Ollie Avenue and Highway 98 in Calexico have been impacted by a contractor who abandoned a plan to expand a section of Highway 98 and left the area in poor condition for the past two months. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

The Crossroads Plaza is located on the northwest corner of Imperial Avenue and Highway 98, has a Starbucks, Carl’s Jr., and other retailers, and is accessible via Ollie Avenue on its west side.

“What are people supposed to do, lose their business because the entrepreneur just left,” Horton said in a phone interview.

He also raised his concerns during the public comment period of the regular meeting of the city council on Wednesday, June 15.

“This is not a normal Highway 98 deal and I think you all understand that part,” Horton told the board.

The $7 million project would have started in February 2021 and was to include the installation of hot mix asphalt, concrete, drainage modifications, as well as landscaping and electrical work, according to information found on the website of Spectrum Building. The project was to be completed in 225 days, according to the website.

Once the project started, customers in the Asadero neighborhood lost access to the stretch of road in front of the restaurant that served as customer parking spots, owner Zepeda said. The result has been a drastic drop in the number of returning customers who have little time for lunch breaks and other potential customers who believe the restaurant is closed during the road improvement project.

The restaurant in the Asadero neighborhood at the corner of Highway 98 and Ollie Avenue in Calexico lost business due to customers losing access to the stretch of road in front of the restaurant that served as parking spots for clients. For two months now, Highway 98 has been in disrepair after a contractor left the job site. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

“Our business is barely surviving enough to pay the bills,” Zepeda said in Spanish in a message sent via Facebook. “We are in crisis.

Currently, Caltrans and the surety company engaged to guarantee the completion of the project are separately seeking a contractor to complete Phase 1 of the pavement project. The project has a total of six stages, most of which have yet to be funded, according to information found on the Caltrans website.

Shortly after Stage 1 began last year, Spectrum Construction notified Caltrans that it was having trouble assembling a workforce, which caused delays to the project, the agency said. Caltrans District 11 resident engineer Daniel Hernandez to the city council during its May 18 regular meeting.

Those delays continued, Hernandez said, forcing Caltrans to notify Spectrum that it risked losing legal control of the project. Ultimately, Spectrum stopped responding to repeated requests from Caltrans and dropped the project.

Caltrans also cannot simply remove road barriers from closed sections to allow traffic to resume because part of the roadway has been removed, he said.

“The only solution is to complete Stage 1 and open to traffic,” Hernandez said.

At the time of the May 18 meeting, Hernandez revealed that due to the legalities of Spectrum taking control of the project, it would take at least three to four months for the project surety company to bring a contractor back. on site to complete the project.

In the meantime, Caltrans is also conducting its own search for a contractor to complete the initial phase of the project. If successful, any expense Caltrans may incur would be reimbursed by the surety company.

The agency also worked with affected businesses, such as the Asadero neighborhood, to alleviate some of their concerns. Hernandez said that in the decades he worked for Caltrans District 11, this is the first time a contractor has walked away from a project.

Spectrum Construction reportedly had a “tough time” where it had issues with its supply chain and struggled to assemble a workforce, said David Aguirre, acting executive director of the Imperial County Transportation Commission.

The Highway 98 widening project was one of many projects the company had to scrap, Aguirre said in a phone interview.

So far a lot of demolition of the old causeway has been done, as well as some preliminary work for future improvements.

“There is still a lot to do,” Aguirre said.

Unfinished work on Highway 98 in Calexico has been causing problems for area businesses since a contractor pulled out of state employment about two months ago. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

When city council was informed in May by Caltrans senior engineer Hernandez of the stalled project, various council members lamented the awkward position the city and affected businesses found themselves in and pledged to take action. to help alleviate the situation.

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One suggestion from council member Raul Ureña was to ask the city to instruct its staff to allow affected businesses to apply for permits to sell their wares on adjacent sidewalks.

Pro Tem Mayor Camilo Garcia said he understands the takeover of the project by Spectrum’s bond company involves an established timeline and process, but indicated that if no resolution is reached soon, the city will feel obliged to reach out to its elected representatives of the state. push to action.

“I’m not trying to get past you,” Garcia told Hernandez, “it’s just that we’ve been waiting.”

The wait seems to have lasted long enough for Ureña. During the June 15 council meeting, he described the stalled Highway 98 widening project as another example of the state and federal government’s longstanding neglect of Calexico.

He also expressed frustration that Caltrans was unable to reimburse affected companies for any lost revenue, which he informally estimated to total between $100,000 and $300,000.

“Frankly, it pisses me off,” Ureña said.

Caltrans is only permitted to compensate affected entities for damages, sources said.

Ureña further estimated that the city lost about $800,000 in sales tax revenue due to the federal government’s extended border closure to Mexican tourists during the pandemic.

Considering the $350,000 the city spent on additional traffic control officers to ease congestion in the city due to the closure of the eastern port of entry amid the pandemic, Ureña said that It’s no surprise the city finds its finances designated as “high risk” by the state due to its minimal general fund reserves.

“It’s not so much that COVID has taken us off course, but it’s the harm caused by each of these levels of government at our weakest point that is why we are not where we are. want to be,” Ureña said. “It’s an injustice and it’s a conversation the city needs to take to higher levels. I don’t think these things happened in any other city.

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