Bridge collapse has big impact on Canadian shopping traffic

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 18, 2013 

BorderSurvey

A bridge worker measures a length of wood on the new permanent span adjacent to the temporary span, right, on the Skagit River bridge on I-5 on Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 in Mount Vernon. The new span will eventually be slid over into place to replace the temporary span, which collapsed in May.

ANDY BRONSON — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

The number of Canadian shoppers venturing into Skagit and Snohomish county stores plummeted after the Skagit River Bridge collapse.

The change was striking. The Marysville Costco, for example, had an 80 percent decrease in the proportion of Canadian license plates observed in its parking lot in June compared to a survey done in March, before the collapse.

Surprisingly, that didn't result in more Canadians packing the Bellingham Costco. The surveys showed roughly 75 percent of vehicles in that store's parking lot had Canadian plates, a fact Bellingham residents know well.

The numbers come from a new study from Western Washington University. The Border Policy Research Institute released its initial results studying the travel habits of Canadians between the U.S. border crossing south on Interstate 5 to Marysville in March and again in June.

The research done in June took place before the temporary bridge was installed at the Skagit River on Interstate 5, giving an idea of whether Canadians were traveling through the detour and continuing south toward Seattle.

A portion of the I-5 Skagit River Bridge collapsed May 23 after being struck by an oversized truck. A detour was created around the bridge until a temporary structure was installed, reopening the bridge on June 19.

The institute hired Western students to observe and write down the number of Canadian and U.S. vehicle license plates at more than 25 spots along the I-5 corridor and in Lynden. For the June survey, researchers calculated the proportion of Canadian license plates and compared it to March.

Five of the six retail areas surveyed south of the Skagit bridge experienced a decrease of more than 40 percent after the bridge collapsed.

While a decrease in Canadian traffic at retail centers south of the Skagit bridge was expected, David Davidson was surprised by how much of a drop took place. Davidson, an associate director at the institute, said the survey provides an interesting snapshot on what happens when a key piece of transportation infrastructure is disrupted.

In stops along I-5 north of the Skagit River Bridge, the change between the March and June surveys was mixed. At Skagit Valley Casino, for example, the proportion of Canadian license plates in the parking lot increased by more than 40 percent; while Bellis Fair decreased 10 to 20 percent. In several areas, the proportion was about the same in June as in March.

Davidson noted that almost none of the spots surveyed north of the Skagit bridge experienced a drop of more than 20 percent. The two exceptions were in the detour area on the north side of the bridge - the Burlington Costco (down more than 40 percent) and the Burlington shopping center home to Best Buy (down more than 20 percent).

It appears overall that southbound border traffic into Whatcom County was not impacted during the period between the bridge collapse and the temporary bridge installation.

According to data collected by Western's Center for Economic and Business Research, nearly 2.8 million people went through the five border crossings into Whatcom County in May and June, a 5.7 percent increase compared to the same period in 2012.

In July, with the temporary bridge in place on the Skagit River, the number of border crossings hit 1.6 million, the highest monthly total since August 2012.

WHERE CANADIANS STOP WHEN GOING SOUTH

The March survey provided valuable information - and surprises - about where Canadians go once they go cross the border and there isn't a collapsed bridge to navigate around.

In Ferndale's downtown core, only 1 percent of the vehicles had Canadian plates. At the I-5 exit 270 overpass near Custer, the percentage of cars with Canadian plates traveling south averaged 73 percent, an indication that quite a few Canadians are driving past Ferndale's downtown to other places.

The March survey also shows the popularity of the Seattle Premium Outlets. According to the data, 44 percent of license plates in that parking lot were Canadian, despite being 72 miles south of the border.

"I was surprised at the extent Canadians went all the way down to Marysville," Davidson said.

The authors of the survey noted that extending the study area to include the Everett and Alderwood malls likely would be of value.

In Bellingham, 68 percent of the license plates in the Ross Dress for Less parking lot were Canadian, the second-highest percentage in the 11 areas surveyed in March. The Target parking lot at Bellis Fair was next highest at 53 percent, followed by Trader Joe's (49 percent) and Walmart (48 percent).

In Lynden, 13 percent of the license plates downtown were Canadian, while the Safeway parking lot had 8 percent.

Davidson said the institute plans to continue doing the surveys a few times a year to gain a better understanding of Canadian shopping in Western Washington.

"We normally wouldn't release a study this early (after just two surveys), but this is topical," said Davidson, referring to opportunity of measuring the impact of the bridge collapse on Canadian traffic.

For details on the survey, visit wwu.edu/bpri.

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Business Blog at bellinghamherald.com/business-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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