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State eyes abandoning Highway 20 realignment.

Byline: Saul Hubbard The Register-Guard

Facing an additional $90 million in cost overruns, the Oregon Department of Transportation is considering abandoning the ill-fated realignment of Highway 20 just west of Eddyville.

Continuing landslides on the Coast Range slopes through and over which the 5.5-mile stretch of highway is designed to run mean that ODOT now expects the project to cost close to $400 million.

That dwarfs the original cost of $140 million - which was already the most expensive highway project ODOT had ever undertaken - and is almost 30 percent higher than the $310 million estimate ODOT made just two months ago.

ODOT officials will request the rest of the money they say is needed to complete the project - $176 million - from the Oregon Transportation Commission at its meeting in Salem on Dec. 19. The commission, which has five members appointed by the governor, oversees ODOT.

But ODOT also will present the commissioners with several other options, which include not moving forward with the realignment project at all. Instead, ODOT could potentially widen or attempt to straighten the existing 10-mile stretch of treacherously winding road that the realignment sought to replace.

Paul Mather, ODOT's highway division administrator, told an interim Oregon Senate Committee on Tuesday morning that such "a significantly scaled-back project" is now on the table.

"We continue to struggle with this project," he said, "At this juncture of the project - given the cost that we now know ... we want to make sure we're looking at the full range of options that we have in front of us."

While most of the landslides that have plagued the project so far have been recorded in the valleys, over which ODOT had hoped to build bridges to support the roadway, significant soil movement is now being registered by ODOT tests above the "cuts," a series of paths carved into the mountain rock through which the roadway would run.

"There's large cracks forming, that (mean) literally the whole mountain in about three or four spots (is) potentially coming down on the roadway," Mather told the committee. "We have to deal with those to proceed with the project."

The existing Highway 20 roadway runs at a much lower elevation, at a distance from the proposed realignment, and it isn't threatened by the landslides.

Construction on the realigned portion of the Highway 20 began in 2005. About half of the 5.5-mile roadway has already been built, on both ends of the uncompleted stretch.

For the realignment to move forward, ODOT said it would need to minimize landslide risk by heavily buttressing the failing cuts and installing more drains in the nearby hillsides - all of which will require additional dollars.

The agency also wants to delay the highway's target opening date for at least a year, from 2015 to 2016, and potentially longer to further monitor existing landslides in the area.

Mather said ODOT could cover about half of the remaining $176 million required to proceed using money the agency already has on hand - savings realized when other projects came in below estimates and $15 million the agency received in its May settlement with the project's original contractor, Granite Construction of Watsonville, Calif.

However, the rest of the money would have to come from Oregon's latest allocation of federal transportation funding, potentially at the expense of other transportation projects throughout the state. In fiscal years 2013 and 2014, ODOT will receive a combined $970 million from the federal government.

Several legislators expressed concern Tuesday about the project's ballooning costs.

"I personally believe that there's plenty of blame to go around to all sorts of parties involved with this project," said Sen. Chris Edwards, a Eugene Democrat. "I just hope the commission is really considering all the options on the table ... At some point, you have to say, 'OK, enough is enough, this isn't working out.' "

Conversely, Sen. Fred Girod, a Stayton Republican, said he would "hate" to not see the project move forward.

"If we're looking at connecting rural Oregon to the I-5 corridor, I think this is an essential element to that," he said.

Asked what ODOT might have done differently, in hindsight, Mather said "one of the clear lessons" was that it was a mistake to go with a "design-build" model for the project, which essentially means the design phase was outsourced to a contractor, Granite.

When Granite's landslide mitigation plan proved insufficient to combat the deep landslides, the company argued that the construction site was different than what ODOT had presented to them. Granite and ODOT finalized a settlement in May, which included freeing Granite from finishing the project. Granite also agreed to return $15 million of the $173 million that ODOT had paid it.

"Might have been better to use the experienced engineers at ODOT who are used to dealing with (the Coast) Range to do" the roadway design, Senator Lee Beyer, a Springfield Democrat, said.

Two members of the Oregon Transportation Commission said Tuesday they had not yet been fully briefed on the project's new cost overruns or the options that ODOT will present to them next week.

But they expressed some concerns about the path the project is on.

"Obviously the costs are really high," said David Lohman, Ashland's city attorney who has served on the commission since 2008. To abandon the realignment project is "definitely an option," he added, although to do so now would be "a really tough call" because the existing stretch of Highway 20 has a "high public safety cost" as well.

Mark Frohnmayer, the president of Eugene-based Arcimoto who became a commissioner in 2011, said he would focus on "being as absolutely efficient with the public's money as possible" when casting his vote on the project's future.

"To move forward (with the realignment), I would want to be very confident that there will not be another cost increase or setback," he said.

The site conditions for the realignment have been and continue to be "particularly challenging," Frohnmayer added.

"We're building a highway on a mountain slope that's basically falling down," he said.

To forge ahead just because the state has spent already over $200 million or to avoid "politically losing face" would be inappropriate, Frohnmayer said.

"You've got to know when to cut your losses," he added.
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Title Annotation:Local News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 12, 2012
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