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Crumbling roads, spotty internet trouble small businesses

The construction site of the new Route 7 drawbridge in Kearny, New Jersey, as seen on April 17. Small businesses want to see the federal government follow through on promises to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure projects. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

The construction site of the new Route 7 drawbridge in Kearny, New Jersey, as seen on April 17. Small businesses want to see the federal government follow through on promises to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure projects. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Every hour that one of The Advance Group’s trucks is stuck in highway or bridge traffic, it costs the moving company around $200. And with 40 trucks trying to get into Manhattan daily and contending with the New York metro area’s deteriorating public property, the price of lost time runs up quickly.

“Getting to and from a job site is not really billable to a client,” says Anthony Parziale, president of The Advance Group, which has its main offices in the suburb of Farmingdale.

Parziale’s company and other small and mid-size businesses want the federal government to follow through on a promise to rebuild not just roads and bridges but also extend broadband to rural areas where Internet and cellphone service is poor or nonexistent.

The Trump administration and Democrats in Congress agreed earlier this month that the country needs $2 trillion for public-works projects. But quick action looks unlikely. President Donald Trump said last week he wouldn’t negotiate with Democrats while they are investigating his administration. And any proposed bill couldn’t be passed without support from both parties — something that appears unlikely to be forthcoming. The No. 2 Republican in the House, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, has already said the $2 trillion figure is too high.

In a survey in January of 1,001 small business owners and operators released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 56% said the quality of their high-speed Internet was good, and 58% said cellphone network coverage was good. Those somewhat slim majorities suggest dissatisfaction is common among a considerable number of business owners.

Roads and bridges got lower marks: 62% of the owners rated local roads and bridges as having between very poor and average quality, and 52% gave the same ratings to highways. Owners in the Northeast gave the lowest marks of all, and owners throughout the country were most dissatisfied with highways.

All businesses must deal with added expenses caused by poor infrastructure, but smaller companies haven’t the revenue cushions large businesses can use to absorb the costs of lost time and repairs.

At the 225 franchisees of AdvantaClean, a company that cleans building air systems, staffers spend about half their time traveling from one appointment to another, and highway and road troubles can cut into the amount of time they spend doing their real work, said Matt Phillips, company president.

“Significant changes to our infrastructure could reduce our expenses as much as 35 percent and help increase revenue by 25 percent,” Phillips says. It’s not just the time, but also fuel wasted in slow-moving traffic that drives up costs, he says.

Phillips’ crews have the most trouble in the Northeast, which tends to have older roads and bridges and other public property, and the Southeast, where roads are crowded because of fast population growth.

In many places, it’s not possible to build new highways. But roadways can be widened in projects that can take years but ultimately allow traffic to move faster. In a recent job, a 35-mile stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike was widened to six lanes in each direction from three; the work took five years to complete. When bridges are replaced, lanes can be added; when the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge replaced the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River north of New York City, the new double span was given eight traffic lanes, up from the seven on the old bridge.

For many small businesses the chief concern is a lack of broadband.

Internet service is poor in the Catskill Mountains, 130 miles north of Manhattan. Lita Wall, who owns Cold Spring Lodge, must regularly contend with spotty Internet service, largely because of her business’s proximity to mountains. The area, which has many “dead zones” where there is no service, needs more cellphone towers.

Wall also owns a restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, but even in the heavily populated city, she struggles with poor internet connections.

“Sometimes it is down and we don’t notice until later and so have issues with the customers who send orders during the time the system is down,” Wall says. At those times, she needs to connect to the Internet using her cellphone as what’s known as a hotspot, a procedure that adds to her monthly expenses.

Even companies that have good service can be forced to contend with their customers’ poor connections. John Royster owns a design firm, Big Muddy Workshop, in Omaha, Nebraska, near military installations whose presence guarantees excellent Internet and cellphone service. But Royster has clients in remoter places, and their internet systems, when they’re working, can’t accommodate the large electronic documents and files that architects routinely send by email.

One client, who lives on a ranch about 300 miles away, couldn’t receive large documents. So Royster sent them to a print shop 40 miles from the ranch where they were printed. The client had to drive two hours round trip to get it.

“These delays in exchanging information can easily add a week or two to a project. This negatively impacts my bottom-line and delays progress for my clients,” Royster says.

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