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Highway gutters get needed attention

Excess paving is being removed to allow old system to work again

A slow drive on the best of days, the Historic Columbia River Highway has been stop-and-go all summer because of a gutter-restoration project.

Gutters are like underwear. Desperately needed, but no one notices them. But the $3 million dollar restoration from Latourell, just below Vista House, to Ainsworth, where the historic road meets Interstate 84, is reclaiming the 90-year-old drainage system that kept the highway high and dry.

Smothered by years of over-paving and clogged by dirt and debris, the gutters built in 1914 for the original highway gradually lost their ability carry water away.

'The water just accumulated, and it wasn't good for the highway,' said Dave Sell, highway historian, who is retired from the Federal Highway Administration Western Lands Division in Vancouver, Wash.

The Vancouver office, says project leader George Fekaris, gets a pot of money for smaller projects in national parks and along Oregon's forest highways.

Eight years ago, when they first started looking at the project, Fekaris said, 90 years of repaving had raised the level of the road so much that the first idea was to build up new gutters to meet the roadway.

But a historic highway is historic in all its respects. The recent work, for instance, has exposed some of the original Warrenite paving. And the gutters, formed on the site and varying in size, are part of the original construction and needed to be preserved. Finally, highway officials decided that the best plan was to mill away the excess paving and work down to the level of the original gutters, cleaning and restoring them as necessary.

As much as 4 to 9 inches of old pavement has been chewed away, exposing the original curbs with their metal rub rails. Taking the paving away brings the highway down to where it was 90 years ago, permitting rain water to wash off the road and into the gutters.

Sell said an exposed lip of the gutter, normally on the right side of the road, is high enough to warn drivers when a right wheel wanders into it.

The project has also allowed the opportunity to rebuild several rock walls and the guard rocks, pointed basalt boulders that were often used to mark the edge of the highway. Last week Dave Gagnon, a mason from Carnation, Wash., supervised a crew that was building a rubble wall and setting the half-ton guard rocks.

The federal project was paired with plans of the Oregon Department of Transportation to put a fresh layer of pavement on the highway from Latourell to Ainsworth. When the project is finished in October, it will look like a whole new road.

And no one is likely to notice the gutters, quietly doing their job.