Highway 20 project still sputtering

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

CORVALLIS Construction on a stalled $150 million effort to straighten Highway 20 between Newport and Corvallis could be inching forward. But even if the state and the project’s contractors can agree on changes for the contentious project, the coastal region’s narrow June-to-August construction window would limit the work that could be done this year.

That would push the possible finish date for the state’s largest publicly funded highway project back two years to 2011.

Highway 20 is notoriously dangerous as it winds through the Coast Range. The 10-mile stretch that the project will tackle saw 38 accidents in 2006 alone. Since 2002, the most dangerous three miles within that section has had an accident rate three to four times higher than the statewide average for accidents on rural highways, according to ODOT data.

Some types of semi trucks are prohibited on the highway in its current narrow, winding and dangerous state, which has a direct impact on coastal lumber companies and other shippers such as grocery stores. The project will create seven new miles of road and eight new bridges. It has also created a lot of controversy.

In 2006, heavy rains washed dirt and debris from recently cleared hills into streams and rivers designated as spawning grounds for sensitive fish species. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality came down hard, fining lead contractor Granite Construction $240,000 and ODOT $90,000.

Granite and the state negotiated a halt on the bungled project and have spent the last year negotiating how to mitigate 11 potential landslide areas that could collapse during construction. Those talks hopefully will wrap up this month, says ODOT spokesman Joe Harwood.

“We’re cautious,” he says of the end of negotiation. “But yes, we’re also optimistic.”

ABRAHAM HYATT
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