Oregon Transportation Commission OKs budget addition

A state agency has approved an additional $142 million for a highway project near Corvallis that is already tens of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

The Oregon Transportation Commission voted to approve the additional funding at a meeting in Salem on Wednesday.

The decision gives the Oregon Department of Transportation a green light to complete the Pioneer Mountain to Eddyville project, which aims to replace a notoriously twisty 10-mile stretch of Highway 20 through the Coast Range with a straighter, safer 5.5-mile route.

Originally budgeted at $140 million, the work broke ground in 2005 and was slated for completion by 2009. The latest appropriation pushes the estimated cost of the project to $366 million and bumps back the targeted finish date at least three more years.

“The earliest we would put traffic on would be 2016,” ODOT spokesman Rick Little said.

However, he cautioned, the date could be pushed back still further if needed to complete the job properly. The transportation commissioners made it clear that they did not want ODOT to be driven by a deadline.

“They’d rather have a successful project than a quick project,” Little said.

Construction on the Highway 20 improvements ground to a halt in 2010 after unstable soils rendered three partially completed bridges and one finished span unsafe. After two years of wrangling with design-build contractor Yaquina River Constructors, ODOT fired the California company and obtained a $15 million settlement.

Under ODOT supervision, subcontractors demolished the unstable bridges last fall and began work on a system of ground anchors, horizontal drains and other measures to reduce landslide risk to the new route. Earthen causeways will be built in place of the bridges, with culverts to carry water under the roadbed.

Little said ODOT plans to make detailed observations of how those landslide mitigation measures perform before deciding whether additional stabilization work is needed.

Meanwhile, the agency will immediately spend more than $1 million of its new appropriation to partially straighten a tricky curve at the east end of the project near Eddyville, the site of a fatal accident in October. A 57-year-old Toledo man and his 37-year-old daughter died when their vehicle was struck head-on by a pickup that reportedly drifted across the centerline.

The option approved Wednesday was one of five alternatives considered by the Oregon Transportation Commission, which sets state transportation policy. Other possibilities ranged from shutting down the project entirely to scrapping the realignment plans and spending $208 million to straighten the existing route near Eddyville.

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