It goes without saying that the U.S. Highway 60 improvement project undertaken earlier this year east of Pawhuska has made a dramatic impact on the existing Osage County landscape.
"They looked like ‘The Fighting Seabees’ going across there," one local observer said after contracted workers began initial site-clearing operations in April.
An estimated three million yards of dirt will need to be moved before the $37 million project is completed in early 2017, according to Mark Zishka, assistant division engineer for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
The planned improvements call for a 5.82-mile stretch of the highway to be straightened, leveled and broadened between the Oklahoma 99 junction and Osage Hills State Park. The much-needed widening will result from the addition of shoulders that are to extend 8 feet outside both traffic lanes.
"We will be replacing some structurally-deficient elements of the roadway as well as eliminating or reducing a number of the hills and horizontal curves," said Zishka.
"It should greatly increase the overall safety for drivers," the engineer added.
During a public presentation in 2012, now-retired ODOT Director Gary Ridley made special mention of the infamously dangerous portion of Highway 60 that connects Bartlesville and Pawhuska.
"All of us have had at least a close call on that road," Ridley said.
Sixteen months later, major reconstruction was approved for the western section of the narrow, curving highway. It was just one of several improvements that are being undertaken along the U.S. 60 corridor between Pawhuska and Vinita.
Sherwood Construction Co. of Catoosa was awarded a contract on the Osage County project last December.
More than a million yards of dirt have probably already been moved in the 1 1/2 months since the work began, said officials at the site. Within the first few weeks, a nearly 200-yard deep swath was cleared off south of the current roadway near the midway point of the construction target area.
Clearing efforts continue (at a reduced pace) east and west of the re-created central portion, which has been established as the project field office. The open area also is used for storage of the materials and equipment that will be used over the next 30-plus months.
Much has been accomplished with bulldozers and backhoes, but explosives also are being employed to facilitate the earth-moving efforts. Signs are posted to explain blast-warning procedures and to ask that drivers refrain from using electronic devices in the area.
Officials at the construction site said blasting is occurring approximately every other day. Traffic is detained from entering the area if the blasting is near the roadway, they added. Zishka said a majority of the blasting is done to eliminate top portions of hills that are being removed.
"Those hilltops are solid rock and they’ve got to be reduced to something that is movable," the ODOT engineer said.
Elsewhere in the area, a different type of topography will require "settlement time" before construction work can proceed over it.
"Some of these fields are so deep and filled with softer soil that need to be compressed before it is suitable as a base," he said.
While the removal of thousands of trees opened wide areas which previously had been obscured to passers-by, the section north of the highway shows a more rocky terrain with vegetation that has been stunted by the effects of ice storms, wild fires and, possibly, man-made factors. The northern side is currently the scene of numerous utility-relocation efforts brought about by the road work.
The highway project currently extends to within a mile west of the entrance to Osage Hills State Park. And before this section is finished, ODOT officials expect that another U.S. 60 project may be starting on a 5-mile stretch to connect with an already-upgraded five-mile section that continues into Bartlesville.
Replacement of bridges over Elm Creek and Rock Creek — as well as a concrete bridge over a nameless creek further to the east — are included in the project. According to Zishka, the new bridge installations are scheduled for the latter stages of the process.
The existing Rock and Elm creek bridges were built in 1933, highway department records show. About two years ago and two miles closer to Pawhuska, ODOT replaced a 1933-vintage Sand Creek bridge on U.S. 60.
U.S. Highway 60 runs east and west across the United States for 2,670 miles. Midway between its eastern-most point at the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia Beach, Va., and a short-stopping point in western Arizona, approximately 350 miles of present-day U.S. 60 lie within the State of Oklahoma.