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Landslide Slows Oregon Highway Project

Mon May 28, 2007 - West Edition
Rebecca Ragain

In the state of Oregon, only a handful of primary highways cross the rugged Coast Range, transporting drivers from inland to the beautiful coastline.

U.S. Highway 20 is one of them. It also is the site of one of the state’s biggest highway construction projects, called the Pioneer Mountain to Eddyville project.

Currently, drivers traveling between the towns of Corvallis and Newport must navigate the Pioneer Mountain to Eddyville stretch: 10 mi. (16 km) of narrow, winding road with curves as dramatic as 180 degrees. Ninety percent of the segment is marked as “no-pass” zone.

The new route will be wider, straighter and 3 mi. (4.8 km) shorter. It was budgeted at $150 million, a number which included the design-build contract, the Environmental Impact Statement, and right-of-way development.

Now it’s looking as if that price tag will change significantly.

The contractor for the project, Yaquina River Constructors (YRC), a joint venture firm comprised of California-based Granite Construction Company and Washington-based Wilder Construction Company, has asked the Oregon Department of Transportation to cancel its $130 million design-build contract.

The heart of the problem is a series of ancient landslides along the 7-mi. (11.2 km) project site.

In an April 11 press release, Granite Construction explained that it had determined the existence of “numerous and massive” landslides, some of which were located at “critical sections” of the project, like under planned bridge abutments.

It estimated that dealing with these landslides would cost an additional $61 million, and add two years to the project, which was originally scheduled for completion in December 2009.

Although ODOT has agreed to consider YRC’s request for contract termination, it would prefer that YRC stay on the job, said ODOT spokesperson Joe Harwood.

“There are a lot of up-front mobilization costs that have already been realized,” explained Harwood, who said that the contractor has already been paid approximately $54 million.

To address the landslide issue, YRC has proposed stabilizing the landslide areas with “giant soil nails,” as Harwood is calling the vertical shafts that could be driven into the bedrock.

ODOT officials said that stabilization could be accomplished for less than the $61 million that YRC is proposing.

Part of the issue is that YRC says it “discovered” the landslides while clearing and excavating the site, work that began last fall and continued through early 2007.

Harwood, however, said that YRC’s original bid documents referred to landslides and weather as two of the project’s biggest potential challenges.

Harwood added, “It’s not like the landslides were a surprise for anyone. We were pretty sure they’d find landslides.”

Until the contractor and ODOT can agree on a solution, ODOT expects YRC to continue construction as scheduled.

Significant work has already taken place since the design-build contract was awarded nearly two years ago, in July 2005. According to Granite Construction’s press release, project design is 98 percent complete.

Since construction began in February 2006, crews have moved approximately half a million cubic yards of dirt, including substantial cutting and filling.

Because the new section of road crosses a fairly untouched section of the Coast Range, a great deal of clearing and access road building also has been necessary.

In addition, construction is under way on the east and west tie-ins, where the existing highway will diverge to the new alignment.

Bridges, both temporary and permanent, are another major component of the project. According to Harwood there are more than 20 waterways in the project area, so a large number of temporary bridges are needed.

The final project plan calls for eight new, permanent bridges. In addition, the Hayes Creek bridge in Eddyville, along the existing highway, was replaced last summer.

Hamilton Construction Company of Springfield, Ore., has been subcontracted to do the bridgework.

Harwood described the entire Pioneer Mountain to Eddyville project as “somewhat rare in this day and age” for ODOT. For many years, ODOT, like other state transportation departments, has focused mainly on maintaining or adding capacity to current roadways, rather than building entirely new sections.

And when it comes to building a highway from scratch, these rugged mountains do not offer the most accommodating landscape through which to do it, reminds Harwood, who cited challenges including rough terrain, minimal access, copious amounts of rain, and geologic hazards.

“There’s a reason we don’t build a lot of new roads through the Coast Range,” summarized Harwood. CEG

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