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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 63· No. 4 > Western Federal Lands Highway Division Responds to Northwest Emergencies

January/February 2000
Vol. 63· No. 4

Western Federal Lands Highway Division Responds to Northwest Emergencies

by Edward Hammontree, Richard Barrows, and Brian Allen

The 55-kilometer Banks-Lowman Highway in central Idaho provides one of the most beautiful drives in the West, even though it is not designated as a National Scenic Byway. Due to the extreme geological features and expansive wilderness areas in Idaho, it is also one of the few east-west highways in Idaho. Knowledgeable vacationers flying into Boise find it a pleasant way to get to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the Payette River Basin.

Views along the highway are spectacular. Paralleling one side of the road is the South Fork of the Payette River, a popular summer water playground. Motorists are treated to vistas punctuated with white-water rapids, brightly colored kayaks, and the occasional fly fisherman as the river snakes its way around the towering granite cliffs that line the opposite side of the roadway.

Banks-Lowman Highway in central Idaho.
Numerous river-rafting companies and other tourism-related businesses in central Idaho depend on the Banks-Lowman Highway for economic survival.

The Banks-Lowman Highway is more than just a spectacular drive. It is vital to the movement of people and goods in central Idaho. More than 2,500 vehicles traverse the roadway each day, and the numerous river-rafting companies and other tourism-related commercial endeavors along the river are totally dependent on the highway for economic survival. Area schools also rely on the road to bus students back and forth.

On New Year's Day 1997, all those people found the highway to be a fair-weather friend. Warm temperatures and heavy rain hit snow-covered terrain and turned beauty into disaster. The one-two punch devastated the highway. Frozen ground couldn't absorb the rain and melting snow. The water had no place to go but down the mountainsides and ultimately into the South Fork of the Payette River. En route, the water pulled enormous boulders and large volumes of granitic soils off those beautiful cliffs and took out entire sections of highway.

The enormous flow of material impacted the other side of this once pretty picture -- the river. It swelled the already flooded South Fork (in some cases damming it up), and the backwater covered the highway. Additional sections of the highway were washed away by the erosive force of the flood waters. What was once a leisurely drive on a picturesque highway had become, in a few short days, an impassable series of washouts, slides, and dead ends.

The loss of the Banks-Lowman Highway affected a great many people. Along with the need for emergency repairs to open the highway as soon as possible for the citizens who depended on the road for their access to Boise, the task of permanently repairing the highway and the huge potential cost and time requirements were daunting. Boise County, which owns and operates the highway, had neither the staff nor the budget to make the necessary repairs. However, with such a strong need for the roadway be opened as soon as possible, from where would the resources come?

The Banks-Lowman Highway is not unique. Highways serving national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, Indian reservations, wildlife refuges, and national recreational areas suffer natural disasters every year. Whether it's flooding, tornadoes, earthquakes, temperature extremes, or other phenomena, millions of dollars worth of damage is done annually to roads within and leading to federal lands.

Perhaps the ultimate example lies approximately 550 kilometers to the west of the Banks-Lowman Highway. The site was once a pristine alpine setting with lush evergreens, deep blue lakes, and mountainous backdrops in the midst of the 1.4 million acres of the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest. However, when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, the blast knocked over the old growth forest and left the resulting landscape looking as if it were overlain with toothpicks. The trees still lie there, bleached white from years of exposure to the sun.

Gabions reinforce portions of the Banks-Lowman Highway.
Portions of the Banks-Lowman Highway are reinforced by gabions, rock-filled baskets tied to steel welded wire reinforcing mats that are layered with soil.

Before Mount St. Helens erupted, the area received its share of visitors. Afterwards, however, especially with all the published photos of the destruction, traffic demand increased several-fold.

In 1996, heavy rains hit the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest (GPNF) and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The area was subjected to intense and frequent storms that resulted in extreme runoff conditions and supersaturated ground. Eventually, slopes failed due to the increased weight of the water in the soil. All major routes into the area from the north, south, and east were impassable, including access to the Windy Ridge Visitors Area, a location approximately 5 kilometers from the crater, which attracted more than 325,000 visitors in 1995. Roadways, bridges, and forest facilities were damaged in great numbers.

The communities served by the roadway system are sustained by tourism and timber. However, with reduced timber harvests, their economy depends on the large number of visitors to the area every year.

The scenario is the same for Banks-Lowman: The owner/operator of an isolated, ravaged roadway system faces an ever-increasing public demand that it be put back in service in a short amount of time, but has limited resources to make it happen. Challenged by the enormous task of rebuilding these important routes and other damaged roads all over the Northwest, the federal land management agencies turned to the Federal Highway Administration's Western Federal Lands Highway Division (WFLHD) and the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads Program, known as "ERFO."

Protective fencing along the Banks-Lowman Highway.
Heavy-gauge fences protect a part of the Banks-Lowman Highway from falling rock.

In GPNF alone, the area's roads and bridges sustained more than $25 million worth of damage during the floods of February 1996. WFLHD assisted GPNF in repairing more than 100 heavily damaged highway sites with 13 separate contracts and a total construction cost of $13.5 million.

For more than 50 years, WFLHD has been assisting federal land management agencies with road and bridge design, environmental studies, and transportation planning, and WFLHD has been working with states and counties to develop transportation networks that are safe, sensitive to the environment, and aesthetically pleasing. So when federal land management agencies called on WFLHD for assistance in repairing flood-damaged roads, WFLHD was prepared to respond.

And, in fact, Congress has allocated funds each year since 1977 specifically for such emergency relief from natural disasters or catastrophic failures. ERFO has been used extensively on federal lands such as national forests, national parks, Bureau of Land Management lands, Indian reservations, and wildlife refuges.

Road damage in the Mount St. Helens area.
A road in the Mount St. Helens area was washed away by heavy rain, rock slides and erosion.

But, in March 1996, WFLHD formed a cross-functional team to respond to the large number of requests for assistance from federal land management agencies. Specialists in such diverse fields as environmental clearance, geotechnical engineering, highway design, and hydraulic engineering were included on the team, which was tasked to respond to engineering requests and to deliver service as quickly and effectively as possible. A project manager headed the team and provided leadership and technical guidance for such emergency work contracts.

Ultimately, the entire 55 kilometers of the Banks-Lowman Highway was opened with an emergency contract using time and materials contracting methods. The road was permanently repaired during the summer and fall of 1997, using sealed-bid contracting methods, which implemented reduced advertising and award time lines to expedite the work. The entire repair cost was about $4 million dollars, and the work was accomplished with little inconvenience to the recreational users and landowners.

In addition to the highway damage sustained by the rain-on-snow event, the severe winter weather loosened rock hanging on the rugged hillsides above the highway. To provide a safe roadside, additional rockfall mitigation techniques were used.

These techniques included the use of specialized energy-absorbing wire rope fencing and the placement of layers of rock-slope-stabilizing gunite (shotcrete). Where entire ections of roadway had disappeared into the South Fork, rock-filled baskets or gabions tied to steel welded wire reinforcing mats were layered with soil to create mechanically reinforced earth structures. Often, various sizes and configurations of gabion structures were constructed to effect a more stable roadway and eliminate encroachment into the river or the steep hillside.

Special quick set concrete provides support in unstable areas.
Note the different colors of the rock wall above the highway. Special quick-set concrete was used to support areas that might fall.

The combination of emergency and permanent repairs was challenging and required fresh thinking.

"We found ourselves in situations where we couldn't go by what we learned in text books or use the same engineering approaches that we had used in the past. They just didn't fit the needs of many of these projects," said engineering geologist David Lofgren. "So, we had to come up with approaches that we had never used before. And for that matter, no one had used some of these approaches to this scale. With these new approaches came the risk of poor performance or even failure. That's where having a cross-functional team assisted in evaluating different approaches and levels of acceptable risk. The team approach and a mutual respect for one another's ideas and concerns gave the team the confidence and insight to solve difficult problems. The team never lost sight of the fact that what we developed as our design solution was going to be relied upon by the public and the maintaining agency. It's all part of earning public trust."


Reconstruction of Iron Creek bridge.
The bridge over Iron Creek, destroyed by a flood, is being reconstructed.

Developing timely and cost-effective solutions, even if they included approaches never tried before, was the primary goal of the team, and their customers were quick to sing their praises.

"They know how to please their customers," said the Forest Service's ERFO project manager Dennis Knapp. Knapp worked with the team on a series of projects that required the realignment and replacement of extensive sections of roadway in the Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area. "Working hand-in-hand, we've developed excellent relationships with them; they met all our expectations. We're more than happy with their work."

Flood damaged bridge section near Mt. Hood in Oregon.

The twisted remains of a bridge damaged by the flooding of Fish Creek near Mt. Hood in Oregon.

Gumboot Creek Road.

Two deer stand on a portion of Gumboot Creek Road that replaced the road washed out in a flood.

Few highway engineers see dramatic projects such as the Banks-Lowman Highway or the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument repair work. For the ERFO Team, these are commonplace.

In the Northwest, since 1995, eight separate disasters have resulted in more than 6,500 damaged sites that were approved for ERFO funding. The total value of this repair work is $265 million. WFLHD has completed 83 separate contracts with a combined value of $55 million dollars. WFLHD's customers have included the Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Idaho Transportation Department, Washington State Department of Transportation, Boise County, Skagit County, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service.

Rock-filled gabions in Gumboot Creek Road.

Some of Gumboot Creek Road is supported by rock-filled gabions.

Visible traces of the old Gumboot Creek road.

The old roadbed along Gumboot Creek in Hell's Canyon National Recreational Area can still be seen.

History has shown that disasters this widespread and of this magnitude are not common, but they can be expected in the rugged regions of the Pacific Northwest. WFLHD's ERFO Team completed its recent mission, repairing the damage from the disasters of 1995 to 1998. Nevertheless, the emergency relief engineering services provided by WFLHD for federal land management agencies will surely be needed again.

Western Federal Lands' ERFO Team

Project Manager: Edward Hammontree

Geotechnical Engineer: Richard Barrows

Engineering Geologist: David Lofgren

Environmental Engineers: Brian Allen, Sharon Brown, Kris Reichenbach

Highway Design Engineers: Brent Coe, Betty Chon, Jack Doucey, John Murphy, Ted Wood

Hydraulics Engineer: Chris Dunn (from the Federal Highway Administration's regional office in Portland, Ore.)

The Western Federal Lands Highway Division (WFLHD) formed its ERFO (Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads Program) for one reason: practicality. The winters of 1996 and 1997 were quite unusual in their devastating effect, and basically, the damage was so great that a method of attacking all the projects and of meeting customer and public expectations had to be conceived. WFLHD's leadership formed the team with hopes of streamlining the work.

Groups of professionals focusing on specific tasks are nothing new. But applying it to ERFO work was, indeed, different. But one can easily see the benefits. Familiarity is said to breed contempt, but in this case, it bred trust, understanding, and ability to anticipate what each team member's approach would be to specific situations. As someone on the team noted, "When you've got five people you've worked with and respect and you're all clinging to the back seats of a Cessna 180, you develop good relationships quickly." And, again, this enhanced the team's ability to do the work rapidly and well.

This group of individuals developed into the best team of engineers with which I have been associated. The ability to work together, support each other, and develop innovative solutions to complex problems in environmentally sensitive areas under tight time frames is something we will be proud of the rest of our careers.

Edward Hammontree

Project Manager

Edward Hammontree is currently a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) construction operations engineer with Central Federal Lands Highway Division. He was the project manager for the Western Federal Lands Highway Division's ERFO Team from 1996 to 1999, and he worked closely with multiple federal land management agencies in the Northwest. Hammontree joined FHWA in 1988, and his career has included assignments as a design engineer, construction project engineer, and design project manager. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering for the University of Akron, and he is a registered professional engineer in the state of Washington.

Richard Barrows has recently moved into the position of WFLHD construction quality assurance engineer. He joined the Federal Highway Administration in 1991, and for the past eight years, he served as a geotechnical engineer for WFLHD's geotechnical business-focused team and the WFLHD ERFO Team. Prior to working for FHWA, he worked for the Oregon State Highway Division as a geotechnical engineer. He has done a considerable amount of work with mechanically reinforced earth structures and has served on the retaining wall committees of both the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and FHWA. He has a bachelors degree in civil engineering and a masters degree in geotechnical engineering from Portland State University. He is a registered professional engineer in Oregon.

Brian Allen was recently promoted to design operations engineer in FHWA's Western Federal Lands Highway Division where he is responsible for managment of the Forest Highway Program in Washington and Alaska. Allen joined FHWA in 1989, and his career has included assignments in federal-aid, design, construction, and environment. He is a graduate of FHWA's Highway Engineer Training Program, and he holds a degree in civil engineering from Brigham Young University.

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