Friday, December 30, 2011

Knife River ‘got ’er done’—almost

Sticky issues plagued Highway 75 work

Express Staff Writer

Stops and starts seemed to be the norm for highway construction this year, as Knife River Corp. was bedeviled by mechanical problems that caused delays on three projects in Blaine County. A Knife River crew is shown here working on broken machinery in June south of Bellevue. The incident seemed to be a harbinger of things to come. Photo by Mountain Express

In spite of what seemed at times to be utter chaos, Knife River Corp. managed to get a new surface on state Highway 75 between Hailey and Ketchum this year.

It was a near-miss thing, accomplished only because of the good graces of Mother Nature, who forestalled her typical late-October cold blast to give Knife River a few extra weeks to get the job done.

But even then, Knife River didn't quite finish, and will be back next summer for a few more weeks of motorist inconvenience to put a "micro-seal" coating on the new surface.

At times, Knife River seemed like a comical rendition of the little Dutch boy trying to keep a finger in sprouting holes in the dike, as the company shuttled equipment and crews back and forth among three highway paving projects in Blaine County.

Members of the Blaine County Regional Transportation Committee, composed of representatives of local and federal governmental entities, questioned last spring whether Knife River had the resources to finish all three projects. Idaho Transportation Department officials assured the committee that it did.

Nonetheless, Knife River, headquartered in Bismarck, N.D., where the company manages numerous highway construction projects throughout the western United States, seemed to be critically short of properly functioning portable asphalt batch plants, which usually got the blame for delays on Blaine County work.

The delays started in June, when Knife River began resurfacing a 5.5-mile stretch of highway south of Bellevue. The project was supposed to last about a month. Instead, it took two.

That put Knife River behind on a 28-mile highway resurfacing project north of Ketchum between Frenchman Creek and Stanley. That work was supposed to be finished in late August, in time for the company to start the Hailey-to-Ketchum project by the first of September. Instead, the project up north rolled into September itself and work between Hailey and Ketchum didn't start in earnest until October.

Once under way, ITD, Blaine County officials and the Idaho Mountain Express were flooded with motorist complaints about poor visibility in late-night construction zones, flaggers who didn't seem to know how to give a proper hand signal, scraped undercarriages from construction zone bumps, battered vehicle shocks, paving during inclement weather and excessive traffic delays.


And then there was the "tar-spotting" debacle.

On Oct. 4, hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles were showered with a tar-like substance in a construction zone just north of Hailey. Knife River denied responsibility, blaming the spots instead on heavy rain that mixed with a mysterious residue exposed when the old road surface was milled away.

ITD wouldn't take responsibility either, but made a "goodwill gesture" to the complaining public by giving away Tarminator solvent to remove the spots. People who used the product attested that it worked quite well and without damaging vehicle paint.

The goodwill gesture was symptomatic of ITD during the entire process, as the agency sought to keep a happy smile painted on the whole thing, adjusting its rhetoric from time to time to meet a changing situation.

Originally, ITD was confident that Knife River would finish the Hailey-to-Ketchum project this year, even after delays seemed to threaten that prospect. Eventually, the agency presented a "good-news, bad-news" scenario to the Regional Transportation Committee and to the public, with officials stating that yes, the new surface will be in place this year, but no, the micro-seal will have to wait until 2012.

Even later, ITD claimed that it knew all along that the project might not get finished in 2011.

In all fairness to ITD, the agency did provide a contingency in its contracts with Knife River that allowed the company to finish in 2012 what didn't get done in 2011.

In further fairness to ITD, it wasn't the agency's fault altogether that the Hailey-to-Ketchum work dragged on into late fall. Originally, ITD wanted to start the project earlier in the summer, but even before a schedule was developed and a contract agreed to, ITD yielded to a request from the Transportation Committee that work not start until after Labor Day weekend so that construction wouldn't impede heavy tourist traffic for a myriad of summer events in the Sun Valley area.

Also at the request of the committee, ITD prohibited weekend highway work.

But regardless of everything that transpired, the 10-mile stretch of state Highway 75 between Hailey and Ketchum now has a nice new surface, and any motorist who drives the highway routinely has to admit that the roadway's a whole lot smoother than it was last year.

Terry Smith:

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