$365 million and counting: Oregon road to coast still not fixed

$365 million and counting: Oregon road to coast still not fixed »Play Video
FILE -- The original plan called for building a bridge on a section of the highway from Corvallis to Newport to make the drive smoother, but the movement of earth caused delays and eventually the columns came down. A new plan was then crafted.

EDDYVILLE, Ore. - If everything had gone as planned, your summer trip to the Oregon Coast would have been a lot easier.

The drive to Newport from Corvallis would have been smooth sailing and worry-free. But plans didn't go so well.

Forces of nature caused delays on a bridge project in the Coast Range that would have straightened a 10-mile stretch of windy road down to five and a half miles.

In 2005, the Oregon Department of Transportation contracted out the “design and build” of the Pioneer Mountain to Eddyville project.

Initially it was going to cost $129 million. It wasn't long before problems crept in.

“In 2007 we actually suspended work to take a look at what they contended were newly discovered landslides,” said ODOT spokesman Rick Little.

The earth was moving underneath bridge columns, escalating the cost of the project which was already over budget due to environmental concerns. Years went by, a notice of default was filed, plans got scrapped and the bill has grown to $365 million of taxpayer money – almost three times the original estimate.

Because of that earth movement, the columns had to be removed, and the area where they once stood will be filled in with dirt. It will take 2.4 million cubic yards of material to fill in areas between the hilltops.

But that's not so easy either. Water is bubbling out of the ground everywhere you look on the site. Pipes have been drilled into the ground to relieve pressure, and mountains of dirt have been dumped to stop other mountains from moving. And ODOT has over 300 instruments on-site to measure earth shifts.

"Because we have more precise data available to us, that we can pinpoint exactly what mitigation is needed and where. And in the long run that leads to more efficient spending," said Little.

ODOT is optimistic its new plan, without bridges, will be completed at the end of 2016.

“We have all the confidence in the world right now,” Little said. “We have a clear understanding of the data that we collected. We are probably more confident now than at any point in this project.”

Residents and drivers have heard this before and just want the problem fixed.

“I think it’s a pain. I travel this road quite often to Newport, and it is an inconvenience,” said Charly Francis.

No doubt a lot of frustration has built up over the years from the cost overruns and the delays. But keep this in mind: From 2010-2013 there were 94 crashes along the stretch of road from Corvallis to Newport, and that’s why a lot of people say the road needs to change.

“In the long run to get it done, and get it done right – and protect the environment and safety issues, it’s going to be awesome once it’s finished. So we can hardly wait,” said Eddyville resident Nancy Hill.

If everything stays on budget, and history shows that’s a big if, it will cost over $66 million a mile for the new roadway.

“With the clarity of hindsight, ODOT can take a look at this project and see where perhaps it could make better decisions in the future,” said Little, responding to a question about who’s to blame.

But before you start planning your 2017 Oregon Coast summer vacation, even ODOT is leaving open the possibility of more rocky roads ahead.

“We’re not completely out of the woods yet, either,” said ODOT project leader Jerry Wolcott. “Mother Nature always has the final say.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said a lawsuit had been filed; it was in fact a notice of default.

Watch an ODOT video about the project: