Of the Baker City Herald

After the second flat tire, Deryl Leggett decided to try the road less traveled.

He's had no more trouble since.

Both Leggett and his wife, Carolyn, express a rather low opinion of the Anthony Lakes Highway.

andquot;We avoid it as much as we can,andquot; Deryl Leggett said in describing his preference for gravel roads any gravel road over the dilapidated highway that crosses Baker Valley between Haines and the Elkhorn Mountains.

Carolyn Leggett concurs.

andquot;It's in terrible shape,andquot; she said.

Deryl Leggett said the couple designed a detour that includes only one short stint on the highway when they travel from their home on Foothill Drive, northwest of Haines, to Baker City or other points east.

But a brighter future or at least a smoother one, with no more tire-shredding gravel looms for the Leggetts and for every other driver who has suffered through the shock absorber and tire tread torture test that is the highway.

Prepare to swap potholes for pristine pavement.

Workers from Tidewater Construction plan to start paving the roughest section of the road June 16, said Rick Holden, Baker County's assistant roadmaster.

Their schedule is tentative, however, and inclement weather or other factors could push back the start date, Holden said.

Crews will spread fresh asphalt from the Haines city limits through Baker Valley to the North Powder River bridge.

The 12-mile, $4.5 million re-paving project should be finished by July 15.

That will stand as a red-letter day for valley residents who have endured dozens of bumpy drives along the highway over the past several months.

Here's why the road is so rough, Holden said:

Last fall, workers ground up the existing pavement and mixed it with crushed rock.

Then they sprayed the road with a liquid that binds the gravel, a process called chip-sealing.

But workers waited too long, Holden said.

They didn't finish chip-sealing until November, and by then temperatures were too low for the liquid to cure properly, he said.

Despite that disadvantage, the road probably wouldn't have deteriorated so quickly had winter brought its normal complement of blizzards, Holden said.

It was, he said, a rare case when a roadmaster actually hoped storms would coat one of the byways in his jurisdiction with slippery snow and ice.

A frozen layer would have protected the poorly consolidated gravel from tires, Holden said.

andquot;We just kept begging for the snow to come and stay,andquot; he said.

By mid-winter the highway more resembled a gravel logging road than a national scenic byway.

But worse than the potholes, the Leggetts said, was the tire-puncturing gravel.

The Leggetts' experience is far from unique, said Jim Brown, co-owner of Lew Brothers Les Schwab Tires in Baker City.

Baker County has hundreds of miles of gravel roads, and Brown said his workers fix hundreds of flat tires caused by gravel every month.

andquot;Gravel is definitely the biggest killer of tires,andquot; Brown said.

His tip for drivers: buy tires with more andquot;plies,andquot; or layers.

A pickup truck or SUV tire with 10 plies costs slightly more than a 6-ply version, but the 10-ply spits out gravel that would flatten the thinner tire, Brown said.

Leggett said he'll be happy not to have to worry about plies or potholes or punctures.

andquot;It's been a long haul a really long haul,andquot; he said.

Holden said Tidewater crews might arrive as soon as next week to start preparing the highway for its new coat of asphalt.

Once paving starts, drivers should expect delays and detours, he said.

This winter's balmy weather was just the latest in a series of misfortunes that have plagued the Anthony Lakes paving project since the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) unveiled it about six years ago.

At first, federal officials predicted the new pavement would be in place by the turn of the century.

But they didn't count on the spectacular, and rare, plant that favors roadside ditches.

The plant is Howell's spectacular thelypody, and it's protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

In their original design, FHA engineers proposed to widen the highway shoulders, Holden said.

But they later learned that extending the shoulders would bury prime thelypody habitat, he said.

Back to their computers they went.

andquot;That was probably a two-year delay,andquot; Holden said.

He said the Leggetts and other road-weary drivers won't be alone in rejoicing when workers spread the final load of asphalt.

andquot;I think we're all going to celebrate,andquot; Holden said.