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Massive highway project delayed

A right-of-way snafu has delayed the largest road construction project in more than 50 years in Jackson County and has raised the specter of cost hikes for the four-mile-long bypass for busy Highway 62.

“There is a possibility that things could go up, but there’s a possibility that things could go down,” said Art Anderson, regional director with the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Instead of going to bid on the project in March, ODOT is looking at Oct. 29, with work starting sometime at the beginning of next year.

ODOT faces two right-of-way issues before it can proceed with the $120 million project, but Federal Aviation Administration approval is causing the most concern.

The four-lane freeway will roughly follow the old Medco Haul Road and will relieve congestion on Highway 62, where traffic rivals that of Interstate 5.

ODOT plans to build a seven-mile bypass from Interstate 5 to past White City.

With only $120 million of the $440 million needed for the entire freeway in its coffers, ODOT will build just the first four miles, starting near Sportsman's Warehouse, crossing over Vilas Road and ending at Corey Road, just south of White City.

ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming said he couldn’t reveal the name of a second right-of-way issue with a private party near Coker Butte Road because of ongoing real estate negotiations. However, ODOT expects to have the issue resolved soon.

ODOT has been working with Jackson County and airport officials to gain right-of-way around the area where the new bypass will start just northeast of Poplar Drive.

Airport Director Bern Case said the FAA is concerned about an expanded “runway protection zone,” which is a restricted area near the airport that encompasses the former Butler Ford on Crater Lake Highway.

When the bypass was first discussed, the protection zone wasn’t as big as it is now, Case said. Now, the zone pushes almost to Texas Roadhouse Grill and Sportsman’s Warehouse.

“Almost a decade has passed, and some of the criteria changed, and the whole thing got caught in the gears,” Case said. “The duration of the project has been part of the issue.”

The airport is trying to make the case that the bypass proposal predates the expanded protection zone required by the FAA, he said.

“We’re just going to have to do a pound of paperwork,” Case said.

By the end of the month, the airport hopes to file the necessary documents with the FAA, and it should get some kind of verbal approval this fall, followed by written approval at a later time, Case said.

Anderson said the right-of-way issue came up after ODOT completed its environmental assessment of the project, which was reviewed by the FAA.

He said he's not sure when the FAA will give its approval. ODOT may have to make a decision to proceed with the project once it has some preliminary approvals from the FAA.

“We will weigh the risk of moving forward against the risk of it being better to wait,” he said. If FAA approval doesn’t come through after the bid is awarded, ODOT could end up footing the bill to pay the contractor to delay the project, Anderson said.

Anderson said delays in bidding the project could result in higher costs, but ODOT’s internal estimates indicate the project should come in under budget.

“You never know,” he said. “Every time you slip a project, you don’t know what the bidding environment will do.”

He said ODOT hasn’t seen any large jumps in construction contracts, though there has been a general upward trend in bids.

Anderson said he expects a fairly competitive bidding environment for a project of this size, attracting firms from California and Washington.

ODOT will be bidding the project in two phases. The first phase is from about Skypark Drive on Highway 62 to within 1,000 feet of Vilas Road. The second phase is from 1,000 feet of Vilas Road to Corey Road near White City.

Most of the construction will not disrupt traffic flows except where the bypass begins.

“We are going to make sure we get the word out in advance about alternate routes,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @reporterdm.

An Alaska Airlines plane flies over Highway 62 before landing at the Medford airport Tuesday. Construction of the Highway 62 bypass, which will run close to the airport, will be delayed because of a lack of FAA approval. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch