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COURTESY ODOT - An aerial view of construction of the Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville project, ODOT's effort to straighten out 10 miles of highway on the road to Newport. Critics question whether ODOT learned lessons from the project, which was completed years behind schedule after $200 million in cost overruns.Months before the Oregon Department of Transportation asks the Legislature for a massive increase in taxes and fees to support new spending on roads and bridges, the agency plans to “celebrate” a newly completed project that went $230 million over budget and seven years past the original due date — all to straighten a 10-mile stretch of highway.

“Play on the grade!” says the flier announcing this Saturday’s press and public event, the road equivalent of an open house for the Route 20 project from Pioneer Mountain to Eddyville.

But ODOT’s spending of $365 million on a small section of little-used highway — that’s $61 million per mile of the straighter replacement project — has critics asking whether ODOT has in fact learned its lessons as it prepares to ask for a much greater sum of money.

The project is 110 miles to the southwest of Portland, but problems and overruns in the landslide-prone road had ripple effects elsewhere in the state, delaying projects in the Willamette Valley and elsewhere.

Chris Rall is a local advocate for Transportation for America, a project of the national group Smart Growth America. He contends that the Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville project is a scandal that hasn’t gotten its due, and is exactly why lawmakers need to ask more questions before approving any funding package.

“The Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville project had huge cost overruns on par with Cover Oregon, but we haven’t seen the same kind of attention brought to it as was brought to that scandal,” Rall says. “We have questions about the decisions that led not only to the overruns, but also the taking on of such a high-risk project on such a lightly-used rural highway in the first place.”

Costly mistakes

Paul Mather, administrator of ODOT’s highway division, says ODOT has not yet completed the “lessons learned” document for Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville that is typical of other troubled projects. But while he personally didn’t play a role in the project, Mather says ODOT has learned its lessons. “We learned lessons, we applied those and we didn’t repeat the same mistakes over again,” he says.

But, Mather adds, the Route 20 project has “been in some very dark spots ... certainly this project had plenty of opportunities to learn.”

Those “opportunities” included replacing a contractor for allegedly poor work after paying it $162 million, and blowing up four brand-new bridges that cost $17.1 million, according to a four-part investigative series by Winston Ross of the Eugene Register-Guard in 2012. The series quoted documents and observers to pin the blame for the overruns on bad outsourcing as well as ODOT’s practice of awarding projects to the low bidder.

Aiding one mill

The highway had been labeled a highway of “statewide significance” in part because of a Georgia Pacific mill west of Toledo. The firm’s trucks had to take a long route to avoid the hairpin turns that ODOT, starting in 2003, decided to try to straighten out.

There were three bidders for the outsourced project, and ODOT in essence chose the one that paid the least attention to landslides and the area’s well-recognized geotechnical issues, allowing the company to submit the lowest bid, according to the Register-Guard.

The contract for the project was issued in 2005, and by the following year officials and the contractor realized that past landslides had left the ground more unstable than they thought.

Despite a new plan in 2007, by 2010 officials realized efforts to stabilize the area had failed, and the ground was still moving.

In January of that year, Oregon Transportation Commission member Gail Achterman noted the questions about initially making the project such a priority. “Originally, many questions were raised about why money was being spent on a low-usage road to the coast,” Achterman said at a commission meeting, according to the Register-Guard. “The reasons given then as justification have given us many lessons learned about the project selection process.”

Still, the extent of the problems did not become fully public for years.

ODOT took over the project in 2012, after reaching a legal settlement with the contractor. It issued more than $200 million in additional contracts to complete the project.

Missing link to coast

Mather says his agency today would not outsource such a complex project in the same way. It has adopted a much more vigilant, or “observational” approach toward dealing with such complex projects.

He said the department has also learned that it shouldn’t rush special, complex projects like this, which can lead to costly mistakes. “Time was too big of a factor in our hurriedness to complete the project,” Mather said.

He says it’s fair to question whether this project, which provides a faster route to Newport, was a good investment of hundreds of millions of dollars. But he defended the project as worthwhile. “As you drive that corridor, you see how this is the missing link to make this a viable modern highway ... this is a key part in the growth of the central coast.”

Mather said ODOT does try to spend no more than necessary and keep projects at the appropriate size.

Outsourcing remains a major part of how ODOT builds roads and bridges. The department has even turned over much of its quality control to subcontractors, causing its own employees and the federal government to express serious and repeated concerns over the potential for fraud and pavement that fails prematurely.

And in recent years, ODOT employees have complained that even on normal projects, the department’s focus on time can result in hurried projects and overspending, according to interviews and documents.

ODOT continues to build projects that cost more than expected, such as the Woodburn interchange on I-5. A preliminary estimate of $25 milliion for construction has tripled on that project, says Bob Cortright, who works informally with Rall’s group.

Cortright, a former transportation planning coordinator for the state Department of Land Conservation and Development, has tracked the Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville project for years. He used to drive Route 20 regularly. He says the funding decision for the small, relatively little-used project is emblematic of a system in which projects take on a life of their own, sometimes without justification.

He notes that the original special designation of the highway allowing the project to be funded was founded on Georgia Pacific’s economic needs — and yet the company has survived for more than a decade as the highway project languished.

Cortright has continued to bird-dog the project and says he learned that the final geotechnical report concerning stabilization efforts on the project hasn’t been finalized yet — which to him seems strange, considering the project is essentially done.

Mather, of ODOT, takes issue with Cortright’s claim. There is a “high degree of certainty” on the project’s ability to withstand landslides, he says, adding that if an earthquake shuts down the highway, it wouldn’t need major repairs.

Cortright says he thinks ODOT’s plans for a press conference and celebration to open the project relies on the hope that people won’t remember the massive problems the project went through.

“I think that they’re just trying to shove it under a rug and say there’s nothing really to see here. I think they’re hopeful that what they’ve done this time will work, and once the pavement’s there people will stop paying attention to it.”

Rall, meanwhile, says other states take more effort to make sure they’re not overengineering projects.

“Oregon should look to other states like Virginia that are taking bold steps to ensure they invest in projects that provide the most return and states like Washington that right-size projects instead of overbuilding them,” he says.

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