Oregon suspends work on troubled highway project

EDDYVILLE, Ore. (AP) - A $150 million project to straighten a dangerous and curving 10-mile stretch of U.S. 20 between Newport and Corvallis has been suspended.

All construction will be on hold for at least one year until engineers can figure out how to move safely forward. Under a best-case scenario, work will resume next summer and the project will be completed in 2010. Worst case, work resumes in 2009 and the job will be completed in 2011, ODOT spokesman Joe Harwood said.

"There is no question this is going to add additional cost to the bid amount," Harwood said. "The only question is going to be (how much)."

The project has been mired in environmental problems, a criminal investigation and a dispute between the contractor and the Oregon Department of Transportation about how to build the project.

In March, Yaquina River Constructors asked the state to release or suspend its contract to build the road and eight bridges. After three months of negotiations, the two sides agreed this week to suspend the contract until the existence of deep, ancient landslides on the project can be dealt with.

The company said it discovered the landslides when it drilled deep bore holes at several bridgeheads. Any movement of the earth in the area could potentially reactivate the landslides, engineers believe. Costly solutions to try to stabilize the landslides could cost taxpayers an additional $61 million and delay the project for two years, according to Yaquina River Constructors.

Yaquina River Constructors is a subsidiary of Granite Construction Inc., a California-based company that specializes in large public works projects. Granite officials said they stand to lose up to $20 million on the project.

Granite began work in spring 2006. Last summer, the company cleared more than 160 acres of ground, clear-cutting trees and chewing up the soil to get the stumps out. But the contractor was not installing erosion control measures to protect the streams, so when heavy rains came in last September, "we got muddy water into salmon-bearing streams," Harwood said, "a huge mistake."

Granite spokeswoman Jacque Underdown acknowledged that the company "could have done a better job" with erosion control.

As a result, the state Department of Environmental Quality fined ODOT $90,000. The agency fined ODOT, rather than Granite, because it was responsible for ensuring the contractor adhered to environmental regulations, Harwood said.

Those slides, and the damage they did to salmon streams, has prompted the Oregon State Police to launch a criminal investigation.

 

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)