Overcoming obstacles, crews complete upgrades to the South Fork Road

Posted 9/29/20

It cost more and took longer than expected, with a legal fight along the way, but a more than $14 million effort to overhaul and upgrade the final 14 miles of the South Fork Road is complete. And …

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Overcoming obstacles, crews complete upgrades to the South Fork Road


It cost more and took longer than expected, with a legal fight along the way, but a more than $14 million effort to overhaul and upgrade the final 14 miles of the South Fork Road is complete. And local leaders are pleased with the end result.

Officials from the Park County government, the Federal Highways Administration and general contractor Mountain Construction celebrated the completion of the job with a formal ribbon cutting earlier this month.

Standing a stone’s throw from the South Fork of the Shoshone River at the end of the road — some 42 miles southwest of Cody — Park County Commission Chairman Joe Tilden proclaimed Sept. 3 a “great day.”

“I wouldn’t doubt that, probably, the South Fork Road services more federal land than any other county road in the nation,” Tilden said. “You can leave here from this [Cabin Creek] Trailhead and go all the way to Montana and Idaho and never touch foot on anything but federal land.”

The upper reaches of the South Fork Road provide access to trails leading into the wilderness of the Shoshone National Forest, along with a Forest Service work center, campgrounds, private residences, ranches and the Valley Elementary School. The 6 newly paved miles extend from about the boundary of the Shoshone National Forest to the schoolhouse, with an upgraded gravel road covering the final 7.5 or so miles.

The project was deemed substantially complete on Sept. 17, with most of the funding coming from the Federal Land Access Program (FLAP).

“It’s a federal program meant for a project like this, where we’re improving access [to federal land], improving safety [and] opportunities for recreation,” said Park County Engineer Brian Edwards.

It’s because of that focus on access to federal lands that the work took place at the very end of the road, inside the Shoshone Forest.

There has been some skepticism among the public about the need for the improvements to the route. In a letter to the editor of the Tribune published today (Tuesday), Powell resident Dave Keister complained that the South Fork Road “serves a handful of commercial ranches and big dollar outfitters and the road ends up going nowhere.”

“The benefit to most of the people of Park County is extremely minimal,” Keister wrote.

In an interview earlier this month, Commissioner Jake Fulkerson indicated he’d heard similar complaints.

“I’ve heard ‘the road to nowhere’ and ‘the road for the rich people,’” he said. “Then we tell about the match and then they say, ‘That makes a lot of sense.’”

The county committed $2.365 million to the project — less than 17% of the overall cost — which Fulkerson described as a “real small match.”

“As the dollars get thinner, this is how we get stuff done,” he said.

The work had originally been estimated to cost around $12 million, but the contract with Mountain Construction wound up coming in at $14.2 million. Work had to be added to the project as it went along, so the final cost — which will be tallied in the coming weeks — is expected to exceed the contracted amount.

However, all of the extra costs are being picked up by the federal government, with the county’s share remaining at the original amount of $2.365 million.

Edwards said the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) went out of its way to spare the county from added expenses and ensure the end product was a good one.


Bigger and slower

During the Sept. 3 ceremony, Dusty Escamilla of the FHWA said the need for the improvements stemmed from a history of crashes, poor sight distances due to inadequate curves, issues that made it expensive for Park County to maintain, plus varying road widths, “which didn’t really align well with the travelers’ expectations.”

Construction began in the spring of 2019 and was supposed to wrap up by the end of that year, but “we were probably a little aggressive trying to get it in one construction season,” Edwards said.

Wet weather in the spring of 2019 and cold weather that came early in the fall slowed things down. The materials — including the road’s rut-prone subgrade — were also “insanely difficult to work with,” Edwards said.

Crews wound up excavating 15,000 more yards of material than planned, which, on the plus side, created three new parking areas and five extra pullouts along the Shoshone River. Further, twice as many culverts were added, after drainage issues surfaced in the second season; the culvert work alone added an extra month and a half of work.

Although the project went longer than planned, Edwards praised Mountain Construction’s effort through the rough weather and other challenges.

“They gave it their all,” he said. “They were throwing their people and their equipment at it every day they could. When they could work, they were working.”


‘The bridge that couldn’t be built’

The project’s biggest hiccup didn’t come from the weather but from the replacement of Bridge EGF — the Ishawooa Bridge — over the South Fork of the Shoshone.

In late November 2019, after the concrete deck was poured into place by Billings-based subcontractor FirstMark Construction, the bridge’s girders rotated. That required removing the deck in sections and coming up with a fix.

FirstMark, the runner-up in the bidding for the general construction contract, blamed the FWHA’s design for the inadequate bracing of the girders. However, Mountain Construction, Park County and the FHWA all expressed frustration with FirstMark, coming to believe the subcontractor wasn’t moving quickly enough to fix the problem. Edwards added in an interview that, “We were less than satisfied before we even had the problems with the girders.”

In a letter sent to the FHWA in March, Edwards complained that FirstMark had made no significant progress on fixing the bridge in two months to address a problem “caused by their own negligence and inability to successfully perform the construction.”

He called for FirstMark to be removed from the job, saying the company had been indecisive, adversarial and shown a total disregard for the schedule; at one point, Edwards said, FirstMark suggested the job might take until October.

“This is simply unacceptable,” the county engineer wrote, adding, “Completing what should have been a relatively simple bridge replacement project that normally takes eight months in 1.5 to 2 years is embarrassing to all involved.”

That same day, FHWA Project Manager Micah Leadford questioned FirstMark’s commitment to completing the project — and warned Mountain Construction that it could receive a negative assessment and financial penalties because of the problems and delays related to the bridge and subcontract. Mountain Construction fired FirstMark that same day, on March 19, 2019.

For its part, FirstMark claims it was made into a scapegoat, filing a lawsuit against Mountain Construction in Wyoming’s U.S. District Court in June. The subcontractor asserts it performed its work in accordance with a defective FHWA design. For instance, FirstMark says the FHWA’s design calculations “failed to incorporate important design standards required to ensure the girders were able to withstand the weight of the concrete deck.” FirstMark also alleges that Mountain Construction didn’t provide enough oversight and direction. The subcontractor asserts it’s owed money for the extra work it performed and is seeking more than $1 million in damages.

Mountain Construction, however, filed a July counterclaim contending it’s the one owed money. It says FirstMark was overpaid for “defective work” and an untimely response to the needed repairs. Mountain says the expense of repairing and finishing the bridge “will far exceed” the $1.61 million that FirstMark was owed for the Ishawooa Bridge.

The suit remains pending, with a pretrial conference set for next month before a Cheyenne judge.

Meanwhile, a new subcontractor, CC&G Bridge Builders of Lander, fixed the bridge and brought the girders back into alignment.

“They came in and knocked this bridge out of the park,” Escamilla, of the Federal Highway Administration, said of CC&G’s work.

“‘The bridge that couldn’t be built’ — I don’t know how many times we heard that last year and into this spring … and then they [CC&G] proved them wrong in just a couple short months. It was pretty crazy,” Escamilla said, referring to past statements by FirstMark. “I think it took them [CC&G] less time to build a bridge than the last contractor took to just drive piles.”


A road for future generations

Despite the issues over the bridge, the FHWA, Park County and Mountain Construction all celebrated together at this month’s ribbon-cutting.

No matter what problems popped up, the partners “remained not only civil, but I think we all became friends,” said Stuart Frost of Mountain Construction.

The firm is currently based in Lovell, but has moved the vast majority of its operations to Park County and plans to build an office in Powell soon, Frost said. “We made this decision because Park County’s been so good to us.”

Frost said the company was excited to do a project in “our home area” — and he’s really proud of how the South Fork Road turned out.

“The job, when I drive through it, all I can see is a product that exemplifies teamwork and partnership,” he said.

Officials reeled off a long list of thank yous to the many people and agencies that had a hand in the project, ranging from the Shoshone National Forest to the Bureau of Land Management to South Fork landowners.

“Thank you again for putting up with our mess for almost two years,” Escamilla offered to the traveling public and area residents, “but we do have a road that will be enjoyed for generations to come.”

County officials are hoping to tap into more FLAP funds to continue improving the South Fork Road, working backward another 20 miles to where Wyo. Highway 291 ends and the county road begins. Edwards, who plans to submit an application later this year, thinks the county has a good shot at getting additional dollars for another round of work.