In the August sun, the 10 minute wait for traffic, going and coming on the Minam grade can seem interminable. But rest assured that construction crews are working double shifts to completely meet the late October deadline on a new road cut with a kinder, gentler curve.
The $6.3 million project, (4.3 million for construction and the remainder for permits, inspection, administration, and other expenses) began in August 2018, and was put on hold through the winter. Construction crews are now carving a new, 1500-foot-long roadway through solid-and not-so-solid rock, eliminating the sharp hairpin turn at milepost 30.84, midway up the grade from the Minam River to Cricket Flat. The new curve will post a 40 mph speed limit rather than the 25 mph speed of the present alignment.
Jess Fitzhugh, owner of John Day-based Tidewater Construction said that his 22-person crews were working double shifts to ensure project completion on time. Fitzhugh, who lives in Lostine, has hired some of his crew for this project locally.
The new roadway will sport a 160-foot high road-cut on the west side, and a 15-foot high berm on the east side which will protect traffic from the abrupt 500-foot plunge toward the Minam River below. A sturdy steel mesh barrier will extend down the entire 160-foot west-side road cut, protecting vehicles from any rocks that fall from the near-vertical embankment. The paved highway will be standard width, with wider shoulders. The existing curve will be abandoned, with no access to the historic overlook of Minam canyon.
For most people who travel between Union and Wallowa Counties, it will be good riddance. A number of cars and trucks have gone off the existing roadway, usually with tragic results. In September 2016, a pickup driven by Gary Alford, 70, of Joseph, veered off the road at the curve and rolled about 120 yards down the hill, ejecting Alford. Alive when Union County Search and Rescue reached him, Alford passed away while awaiting a Life Fight helicopter. In 2011, a loaded cattle truck ran off the road, killing the driver and several cattle. And in 2003, a Union, Oregon woman was killed when she ran off the road at the Minam curve. The sharp curve and steep grade have been a source of injuries and fatalities since the Minam grade road was constructed in the late 1800’s.
The cut for the new roadway will remove more than 250,000 cubic yards of rock from the hillside. That material has several destinations. The most obvious to anyone driving the road lately is the in-filling of the ravine east of the curve and just south of the roadway. The plan there, said assistant project manager Josh McCullough, is to buttress the hill slope above, which seems to have a proclivity for sliding and destabilizing the roadway. The small creek in the canyon bottom will have a newly-constructed channel to use. Material from the road cut will also help stabilize a slope below the roadway at milepost 32.56, about 1.5 miles west of the new curve. Approximately 6,800 cubic yards of native material will be removed from the embankment and replaced with heavier riprap—primarily rocks from the road cut—placed between the roadway and the Minam River, including placement of logs in the river and other stream improvements. The shoulder of the roadway failed along about 80 feet of highway in 2017, sending the guardrail into the Minam Canyon. This section of the highway has been troubled by seepage and land-sliding. The rock fill and riprap is intended to provide long-term slope stability.
Lastly, although most of the base rock for the roadway will be imported from quarries in Union County, some material from the 160-foot high road cut will be used in paving and road shoulders.
Barring unforeseen complications, the project will be complete by the end of October. Engineers and geologists are currently designing a way to reinforce a lens of unstable clay recently encountered in the midst of the basalts near the present base of the excavation. Other surprises may lurk in the remaining 40-60 feet of excavation before the drilling and blasting crews reach grade. “It’s been a big job,” said ODOT spokesman Tom Strandberg. “But so far it’s pretty much gone according to plan.”