Culture Fail: Oregon’s Highway 20: The Canary in the Coal Mine?

There’ve been so many problems with the Highway 20 “improvement” project between Philomath and Eddyville over the last seven years that we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Even worse, it may well be a harbinger of things to come nationwide.

It all started with good intentions, of course. Composed of hairpin curves and choked with methamphetamine-fueled tractor-trailer drivers blinded by incessant sheets of rain, the stretch of highway near Toledo has one of the highest death rates of any highway in the state.

So, in 2005, Oregon’s Department of Transportation (ODOT) granted a $150 million contract to Granite Construction Co. to construct a nearly 10 mile bypass. It was and remains the single largest contract ever let by ODOT. You could almost hear the Greek gods of tragedy cackling in glee.

Things started going wrong almost immediately. The contractors clear-cut 160 acres of forest above the new route, and failed to staunch the runoff. The erosion damaged salmon spawning habitat, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality slapped Granite with a nearly quarter-million dollar fine and ODOT with $90,000. Then, just a few days ago, the EPA laid another $735,000 penalty against Granite for the same violations.

Since then, ODOT and Granite have been squabbling over responsibility, delays, and mounting costs, which have added up to over $60 million in overruns.

Then, in 2011, two years after the original finish date, engineers discovered that the 100-foot-tall columns installed to support a future series of bridges had shifted out of plumb because they’d been anchored into an ancient but still-settling landslide. It turned out that vast sections of the proposed re-route were to be built on land sliding up to an inch a year.

Frustrated by the seeming incompetence of the contractors, ODOT took over the project last May. One of the first things they did was begin destroying the misaligned supports and bridges in favor of a new plan involving culverts. The future of the project remains unclear: the estimated cost of the project has ballooned from $150 million to nearly $400 million, and there’s no projected completion date. State officials are “to decide later this month how to proceed.”

Meanwhile, as one navigates the treacherous curves before Toledo one sees, looming through the rain, long expanses of completed, shiningly-new highway, frustratingly unused.

What’s really scary about this debacle is not necessarily the ancient landslides or the soiled salmon streams or that we’re shelling out $40 million dollars per mile of highway, but that this is merely a particularly egregious example of what lies in store nationally as our population swells and our aged infrastructure further degrades. It’s been estimated that, in order to remain globally competitive, we need to be spending $262 billion a year on U.S. highways, rail, and air transportation systems. With our economy stagnating and misguided austerity measures looming, there’s no chance our politicians will be capable of making such investments.

If Highway 20 is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, we’re really doomed.

by Nathaniel Brodie