For more than 18 months, the 1.15-mile stretch of U.S. 190 between Asbury Drive and Lonesome Road in Mandeville has been a dusty, jumbled mess as construction crews have worked to widen and improve the two-lane road, one of Mandeville’s main thoroughfares.
The $11.3 million project, which broke ground in April 2013 and was expected to take a year, has pushed well past its scheduled completion date, rankling business owners and public officials by causing lengthy traffic delays that at times have bordered on the absurd.
Those delays, coupled with the difficulty of accessing some businesses through an ever-changing, confusing series of crossings and driveways, led some business owners to blame the work for keeping away so many customers that their livelihoods were imperiled.
Finally, on Thursday, some good news.
State officials told Mandeville City Council members and business owners that the project should be completed by mid-November, just in time for the holiday shopping season. Even better, they said, four lanes of traffic — two in both directions — should be open as early as Monday.
All that will remain to do is applying the final layer of asphalt and the striping, which Command Construction, the company performing the work, has pledged to do at night, according to Mandeville Mayor Donald Villere.
Not surprisingly, business owners were relieved.
“We are extremely excited to finally have maybe a portion of our holiday season free of the construction,” said Wally Rosenblum, who owns a men’s clothing shop along U.S. 190. “It’s critical that they get it done before the holidays.”
Rosenblum said work picked up on the project in late August after the state Department of Transportation and Development sent Command Construction a letter.
The “intent to default” letter was sent by DOTD’s chief of engineering, according to department spokeswoman Bambi Hall. The letter requested “a timeline and a plan for completing the project from that point on,” Hall said. “It’s basically a warning.”
Mark Benfatti, owner of N’tini’s Restaurant, was at Thursday’s meeting and said he was happy with the news.
“I feel like I could build a highway, as much as I have been watching this,” he said.
He said it’s impossible to tell how much the construction has hurt local businesses. He has been forced to dip into his personal retirement fund to keep his restaurant going, he said, estimating that his business was down 20 to 25 percent.
Benfatti and Rosenblum are just two of the dozens of business owners whose shops or restaurants line the thoroughfare, ranging from large national chains like Barnes & Noble to small businesses like Rosenblum’s.
Many of the owners repeatedly complained to the city about the toll the work was taking on their bottom lines.
Their ire often was directed at Command Construction and DOTD itself. They said Command had managed the project poorly, leading to delays. For example, in April, the company discovered that about 1,000 feet of curb had been laid too low and would need to be broken up and replaced.
Business owners also blamed Command for not warning them when the configurations were going to change. Some owners said they had arrived at work to find their driveways blocked and remaining entrances poorly marked. They also blamed DOTD for awarding the contract to Command in the first place and for not using what leverage the state had to move the project along.
Those frustrations reached the ears of state Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, who in April sent the company a letter threatening to pursue legal action if the work did not speed up. DOTD also began to conduct monthly update meetings on the project’s progress.
When completed, the project will widen the road to four lanes and include some turning lanes and a raised median. There will be sidewalks on both sides of the road.
Villere agreed with the business owners that it was important to have the work finished by the holiday season.
“It’s hugely important,” he said. Business owners “have been suffering with millions of dollars over the last year or so.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.