November 29, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The interstate bridges are extremely important in moving farm commodities to market, Baker County Commissioner Tim Kerns said during a hearing this week on how to spend the money the last Legislature designated to fix state highways and bridges.

There are other reasons to keep the bridges in good condition, said Union County Commissioner Steve McClure.

The freeway bridges are very important, too, because without them, oversized loads will be going over county roads, which were not designed for those loads. We have concerns for what will happen to the county roads, especially for the potential danger when the spring thaw sets in, McClure said.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has known for a while that the states bridges were deteriorating from old age as well as from the increased load limits now permitted under state law.

Of special concern locally is the series of bridges on Interstate 84 over the Grande Ronde River just west of La Grande. Six bridges at three different spots, counting both directions of travel, are scheduled to be replaced at a cost of $29.9 million.

It takes a while to get the bids out, the design work done and then there is the lengthy construction period. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2003 and it will take until 2007 to completely replace all the structures, said Mary Martini of ODOT.

We expect to let the contract early next year February or March for the two Lower Perry bridges near milepost 257, Martini said.

There wont be any construction next year, but the contractors will be designing the new bridges and construction will start during the 2003 season. There may be some preliminary work before that.

To accelerate completion and to deliver these projects as soon as possible, which was the desire of the Legislature, ODOT will employ a variety of approaches. These include alternative contracting methods such as what it calls design-build.

In the traditional approach, a detailed design would be completed by ODOT before the construction was put out to bid. In design-build, ODOT solicits design and construction bids under a single, seamless contract. After the bid is awarded, a team of engineers and contractors go to work.

The design-build concept doesnt save any money, normally, but it puts us on a faster track to completion, Martini said.

The Lower Quarry bridges at milepost 259 just east of the weigh station which were repaired after cracks were discovered last year, will be done second. Construction is scheduled from 2005 to 2007.

When the Lower Quarry project is about half completed in 2006, work on the Upper Perry bridges at milepost 256 will start, Martini said.

It will be 2007 before they are all finished, she said.

Region 5 Manager Tom Schuft said ODOT is well aware of the inconvenience traffic disruptions can cause to the public and hopes to keep cars and trucks rolling through the construction sites.

We will keep one lane of the freeway open to traffic at all times all during the construction, but there may be some minor closures, he said.

Martini said the freeway in the same area is scheduled for repaving during the summer of 2002.

The price for the bridge work, funded by House Bill 2142, the Oregon Transportation Investment Act of 2001, breaks down as follows: Lower Quarry, $11,558,000; Lower Perry, $8,847,000; and Upper Perry, $9,502,000.

The Oregon Transportation Commission is expected to give final approval for the projects in January, with bond financing to be arranged between April and August. The bonds will be repaid from vehicle title fees, various other Department of Motor Vehicle fees and utility permit fees.

Normally, federal funding would be sought for interstate work, but because of the critical nature of the bridges and the need to proceed quickly, only state funds will be used, Martini said.

Which bridges ODOT chooses to fix or replace are selected through a technical rating system, plus consideration for what other funds can be leveraged, Martini said.