North Interstate Avenue is clogged with machines, orange construction cones, and the occasional pile of rubble. It's not the most inviting strip of commercial property in Portland. Cars stop and start as construction workers direct traffic, and potential shoppers struggle to find entryways into parking lots.

Last spring, with a burst of fanfare and a showering of promises that the MAX line would deliver hordes of customers, construction of a $350 million extension of the MAX line into North Portland began. But the present reality of a major construction project has not been as rosy as the promises. This week, construction along Interstate Avenue reached its halfway point, with business owners already exhausted and hanging on with desperate determination. They are looking at the City and its agencies as both their nemesis and their potential saviors.

Merchants say that since construction began, business has halved, leaving many wondering whether the promised long-term pay-offs will offset the short-term costs. Some worry they may not even survive the remaining two long years of construction to reap the promised benefits.

"There are businesses that are definitely struggling," admits Joe Dennis, President of the Interstate Avenue Business Association. "The nature of their business and the MAX development have collided," says Dennis, pointing out that enterprises relying on easy access--like restaurants and gas stations--have been hit hardest.

With businesses flagging, Dennis says that the Business Association has attempted to pull in private assistance--like low-rate loans from area banks and sharing marketing resources. Dennis says that city-sponsored resources have begun to emerge, but wonders whether it is too little, too late.

In January, Portland Development Commission, the city agency in charge of directing development, was slammed with a ruling from a Multnomah County judge. That judgement said that PDC had wrongly been taking money from a tax revenue stream to finance its rehab programs. Since then, PDC has scrambled to determine what revenue it has and which projects will go forward. For North Portland, which had been promised a bouquet of development projects--such as loans for business owners to spruce up their storefronts--the fall-out from that ruling has meant those promises have collapsed like a fallen circus tent. Of 27 projects promised, only one is progressing forward: The MAX line.

The most encouraging news, however, to emerge from PDC in recent weeks is an announcement that the agency will work with Cascadia Revolving Fund to provide three-percent interest loans to businesses that can prove they have been adversely affected by the construction; those loans, said a representative from PDC, can be deferred up to 12 months.

The other city agency directly involved in the MAX line extension, Tri-Met, manages the actual construction. Attempting to mitigate the impact of their construction and to appease business concerns, they have also been scrambling. With support from PDC curtailed, their job has become even more difficult. They have posted signs around town announcing "Interstate Is Open For Business."

In addition, says Mary Fetch, a spokesperson for Tri-Met, they've started a new program: the "lunch bus," which takes tourists to the construction zone, and afterward, for lunch at an Interstate cafe. Fetch says that program has brought $4100 to area restaurants.

But, says Fetch, Tri-Met has also given more assistance to business owners than they had planned, a gesture that Fetch would not admit stems from any sense of guilt. When a decommissioned, underground oil tank was discovered on the property of the Nighthawk, a diner located at the epicenter of the construction, Tri-Met "took care of it," said Fetch. Normally, under federal and state environmental laws, removal of such tanks are the responsibility of the property owner and can cost thousands of dollars. They also helped pave over the café's parking lot, adds Fetch.