WORTHINGTON -- Tesa Spillman drives in to work every day at the Blue Line Travel Center from her home at Okabena, and while the recent spike in gas prices is difficult on a budget, it comes at a time when she's already suffering from lost tips and a cut in hours.
The Blue Line's restaurant has "cut hours right and left" for its 60 employees in the last two weeks because of lost business due to the Minnesota 60 construction project, said owner Larry Potter. Some have been laid off completely, but he said he doesn't want to do it.
"We can't lose our help -- we've got to keep them somehow," said Potter, adding that when the highway is reopened from Interstate 90 to Armour Road in early August, his business will pick up and he'll need his experienced staff.
Spillman, a six-year employee of the Blue Line, had one day a week cut from her schedule, but she considers herself lucky. Other coworkers have had two, or even three, days cut.
"It is awful," she said. "We rely on our tips. We have families, we have kids."
Working a minimum wage job, Spillman said the daily tip income helped make ends meet. Now, "we've definitely been budgeting a lot."
Potter blames the lost business at the Blue Line on confusing signage put in place by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. He drove the highway to the Nobles County 3 intersection and pointed to a "Road Closed 2 Miles Ahead" sign, saying three out of four vehicles are following the detour around the city.
The detoured traffic means lost revenue for local businesses.
"The DOT is rerouting all potential business around the city. Nobody gets a chance to get the business -- it's a crime and something that could easily be fixed," Potter said.
He estimates restaurant sales are down 70 percent, and fuel sales have taken a hit, too. In a typical week, he has about eight fuel deliveries to the Blue Line. Last week, the fuel truck came just four times.
The story is about the same at Worthington Travel Plaza, located on Minnesota 60, south of I-90. Unlike the Blue Line, which still has two-way traffic in front of its business, there's just one way into and out of the Travel Plaza.
"It's tough -- it's very tough," said Gail Dittmer, store manager, estimating a 60 percent loss in business. Some employees there have also been laid off.
Dittmer said the Travel Plaza is benefitting from JBS truck traffic -- most reefer trucks have to fuel up before they can load, and the Travel Plaza is across the highway from the pork processing facility. In addition, they're getting some business from people who get lost.
"They get on the detour and I don't know if it's not marked well enough, but they find their way into the parking lot and can't find their way out," Dittmer said.
Jason Johnson, manager of Tri-State Truck Wash, said he is noticing the confusion as well.
"No one knows what's going on or where they're supposed to go -- it's kind of a mess," Johnson said.
"As far as revenue goes, it doesn't affect our business," he added, saying JBS trailers still come to get cleaned out. The biggest impact is simply getting trucks across the highway, especially during shift changes.
"All of the traffic has been routed on the route that we go," Johnson said. "It's been challenging from that aspect. There's a lot of traffic between 3 and 4:30 in the afternoon. That's by far our busiest time of the day to begin with."
Back at the Blue Line, Potter said the construction has "isolated us from the city."
From Worthington, people have to travel an extra six miles to reach the restaurant and gas station. With an estimated 75 percent of his business coming from residents of the city, Potter said he's feeling the hit.
"What should have been a gold mine for everybody has turned into a big zero," he added. "It's just really frustrating."
Potter met with Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh Monday morning about improving signage so travelers coming from the northeast know they can access the Blue Line and I-90.
"We're going to try to get a couple people from MnDOT down to explain the detour and the length of time," Oberloh said, adding that there were some businesses "left in the dark."
Bob Williams, MnDOT District 7 project engineer, said the project was staged so the Blue Line Travel Center would have two-way traffic in front of it this summer, and that is the case.
"This project is big and it's going to impact a lot of people, there's no question about it," Williams said. "There's a lot of people who would like to have traffic flowing through the project."
The highway's closure south of I-90 was necessary, however, and in the best interest of the construction work and worker safety, he added.
The detour route chosen by MnDOT divides Minnesota 60 and U.S. 59 traffic. Those traveling toward Worthington on Minnesota 60 are detoured east on Nobles County 3 and 35; while U.S. 59 traffic is detoured west at Oxford Street to Nobles County 10, then south to 59/60.
Area residents know they can stay on Minnesota 60 to I-90 and then to U.S. 59, which would take them through town and past gas stations, fast-food restaurants and other businesses. It's a detour Potter would like to see more people follow, because it may make a difference in keeping or laying off more of his employees.
Williams, on the other hand, said the signed detours are the most optimum.
"It may not be best for Potter ... but it is the most direct route," he said. "We chose the most efficient route."
Placing the Minnesota 60 detour on I-90 and Oxford Street with U.S. 59 traffic would create "more potential for traffic issues," Williams added.
He said MnDOT has also placed numerous signs on the detour routes directing people to specific businesses. There isn't a sign directing people to the Blue Line because the highway is open directly in front of the business. Williams did say businesses are welcome to put signs up, at their own expense, in the MnDOT right-of-way to entice customers to their locale.
Construction crews remain ahead of schedule on the Minnesota 60 four-lane expansion project in Worthington, and the goal is to reopen the highway from Armour Road to the northeast by Aug. 1.
"Unfortunately, we have had a wet early spring," Williams said, adding that from a construction standpoint, there is hope for drier weather ahead.
Meanwhile, some problems have surfaced with a portion of the project completed last year.
Minor cracking was discovered on the surface of the first roundabout, located near Worthington Power and Equipment.
"We were doing some coring in there to determine how deep that is," Williams said. Last fall, crews grouted the cracking, and MnDOT now needs to see if that is a "good, permanent fix or if something more needs to be done."
If new pavement is required to fix the problem, Williams said the contractor on the project will have to do the work at his own expense.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.