Of the Baker City Herald

The savior of your shock absorbers is in sight.

Well, maybe in sight with a pair of binoculars.

The U.S. Forest Service plans to repave part of one of Baker County's most beautiful, but also bumpiest, byways.

But the paving crews probably won't arrive until 2006.

And they might not smooth the last patch of blacktop until 2012.

The byway is the Elkhorn Drive, a 106-mile route that starts and ends in Baker City, and along the way circles the 9,100-foot-high Elkhorn Mountains.

Over the next several years, Forest Service officials intend to spend an estimated $13 million to spread a four-inch-thick layer of asphalt along the most potholed part of the byway the 34-mile section between the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest boundary near Anthony Lakes, and the lively ghost town of Granite.

Forest Service officials say about 322 vehicles per day travel that part of the byway and the traffic count can exceed 500 on weekends.

That 34-mile stretch includes two especially jolting sections, which were last paved about 20 years ago, said Jimmy Roberts, engineer for the Wallowa-Whitman.

One is the curve-infested climb from the Wallowa-Whitman boundary, which is near the base of the Elkhorns about three miles from where the byway leaves Baker Valley, to Anthony Lakes. That section is pummeled every year by the one-two punch of freeze-thaw cycles and snowplow blades the latter used to keep the road open to the Ski Anthony Lakes resort during winter (the byway is not plowed between the ski area and Granite, and is used instead by snowmobiles).

The other really rough spot is through Crane Flats, between the North Fork John Day River and Granite.

There, an insufficient layer of base rock, combined with the aforementioned freezing and thawing, results in potholes that appear, rash-like, every few years despite the Forest Service's patching work, Roberts said.

The Wallowa-Whitman's paving plans are the latest in a series of recent improvements to the byway.

Last summer the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) repaved the road from Haines to the North Powder River bridge, at the edge of Baker Valley where the byway begins the ascent to Anthony Lakes.

Baker County officials are working with the FHA to repave the 2.3-mile section between the bridge and the Wallowa-Whitman boundary, County Roadmaster Ken Helgerson said.

He expects that section will be paved in 2006 or 2007.

But even though Wallowa-Whitman officials recently finished writing the environmental study for the Elkhorn Drive project, Congress has yet to set aside a single penny to put down fresh asphalt on the Wallowa-Whitman's 34-mile section, Roberts said.

He hopes lawmakers will allocate money starting in 2006.

If they pony up all $13 million in a single bill, then the Forest Service probably would try to find a contractor capable of repaving the entire 34-mile section over two summer construction seasons, Roberts said.

But it's more likely that Congress will dole out the dollars in three chunks, he said.

In that case the Forest Service would split the job into three approximately equal segments of about 11 miles, each of which would take one or two years, Roberts said.

The first section slated for repaving is from the Wallowa-Whitman boundary to near Elkhorn Summit, about a mile and a half west of Anthony Lakes.

The second section runs from near Elkhorn Summit to the North Fork John Day River area, and the third and final section from the river to Granite, Roberts said.