LA PINE — A construction crew began work Monday removing large beams from the failed Wickiup Junction overpass that would have allowed U.S. Highway 97 traffic to travel over the BNSF Railway, the last at-grade rail crossing on the highway.
The Oregon Department of Transportation decided last year to scrap the project after officials discovered rapidly settling soil at the site. The soil contained ancient microscopic creatures, called diatoms, that weakened the ground beneath the overpass.
Crews had already built the retaining walls and put the beams in place when the project was shut down. The retaining walls will remain, and state transportation officials are still deciding what to do with the site.
About $2.4 million is left from the $17 million project. The remaining funds are being used to remove the 25 beams, and focus on new projects that will improve safety to the entire Wickiup Junction area on the north end of La Pine, according to ODOT spokesman Peter Murphy.
“We started this out as a safety improvement project and we continue to focus on making that area safer for motorists all the way around,” Murphy said. “Overall, it’s always been and will continue to be a safety project.”
Already, about $250,000 of the remaining funds are being spent on short-term projects in the Wickiup Junction area, such as a speed reduction to 45 mph, a new turn lane at Rosland Road and new lights at Rosland and Burgess roads. The speed reduction is already in place, and work on the other projects will start next year.
A large chunk of the remaining funds, about $1.2 million, is going toward the Wickiup Refinement Plan, which will study and design options for safety improvement projects in the area. The planning effort will begin in December.
La Pine City Manager Cory Misley said the city had minimal involvement in the failed overpass project, and said the project didn’t address all of the aspects of the Wickiup Junction area.
Now, Misley is encouraged by the city being a stakeholder in the refinement plan. The plan will cast a much wider net of options for the city, he said.
“As a result of the overpass project not getting finished, we are now ramping up to do a refinement plan process,” Misley said. “It’s going to look at that entire Wickiup Junction area, and it’s going to involve a variety of stakeholders to come up with a holistic approach to that area. In the long run, that’s better for the city.”
In the meantime, workers will continue removing the 25 beams from the unfinished overpass, a job that is expected to be complete by Thursday. ODOT used $665,000 from the remaining project funds to hire Farline Bridge Inc., of Stayton, to do the beam removal work.
The Wickiup Junction overpass project originally started in March 2016 but quickly suffered setbacks.
The first setback on the project occurred Aug. 29, 2016, when two of the 173-foot-long beams fell from a crane as they were being placed on the overpass. Work stopped at the time, but resumed Oct. 27, 2016.
Construction completely stopped May 19, 2017, when officials discovered the ground was sinking up to 5 inches from the microscopic diatoms that once thrived in an ancient lake that existed beneath the project site.
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