In road-crew lingo, "alligator cracks" mean that a road is in serious trouble. That's when the blacktop is so broken it looks more like a jigsaw puzzle than a place you'd like to drive a car.
"It's a sure sign that the underlying structure of the road is gone," said Heppner City Manager Dave DeMayo.
Alligator cracks used to be common on Highway 74, also known as the Heppner Highway, the main entrance into town from the east. Until recently, it was also the second worst road in town, DeMayo said. It runs by Heppner Elementary School, the Morrow County Fairgrounds and the historic courthouse, but it was too narrow and had dangerous curves and few sidewalks.
That's all changing now, as the Oregon Department of Transportation, in cooperation with the city of Heppner and Morrow County, is remaking the road into something the city can be proud of.
That cooperation and the project's smooth sailing, ODOT managers say, is rare.
"Everyday, you have city staff out here, the public works department - they're right here, basically fixing stuff on the fly," said Frank Reading, ODOT's northeast area manager for region 5. "It's made the whole job go smoother."
When parents and school buses needed to be re-routed around the school, Reading said, the city, county and ODOT replaced an old wooden bridge over Hinton creek in record time - 72 hours.
"It was an amazing collaboration for the partners to make it work and safer for the kids in this area," Reading said.
Reading added that the local residents aren't grumbling about traffic delays as much as nearby residents tend to. They seem to want this project and are willing to put up with inconveniences to get it, he said.
The $2.5 million project will widen the road, put sidewalks on both sides of the highway near the school and extend a sidewalk to the fairgrounds. It will also require a new retaining wall near the courthouse, which will be made of ashlar block - as close a resemblance to the original old basalt as the contractor could get.
DeMayo said the final design was the result of numerous public meetings. At the first meeting, he said, his office was "literally packed wall to wall," particularly with people who live along Court Street, the Heppner Highway's name in town,
"There were a lot of concerns," he said. "People felt the road was too narrow to park and needed new sidewalks and safety signals."
Public Works Director Brian Harmon said he wasn't surprised that people are now happy to wait their turn at the flagger to drive the road-in-progress.
"We live out in a rural area, and it's kind of a slower pace out here," he said. "Everyone's expecting a good finished product."