Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Many people find sports and games an entertaining enough diversion from daily life. For others, art galleries or movies do the trick.

For 80-year-old Iris Gardner of Ridgewood, it's Phase II of the East Sonora Bypass project.

Gardner said she considers roadwork on the Highway 108 bypass more fascinating than TV, movies or music - with books a close second.

"If they would let me, I would just put down a chair and sit and watch," Gardner said. "The vastness of it is what's so awesome."

When at the scene of Highway 108 and Cavalieri Road in East Sonora, where three massive concrete pillars have risen within the past several months, Gardner becomes as animated and energetic as a schoolgirl.

A retired technical writer and editor, she wears large glasses, colorful clothes and her heart on her sleeve. She has strong opinions on a variety of subjects, of which the bypass is only one.

Gardner keeps a detailed map of the bypass project in her car, one in her purse and another on a shelf at home, in case she switches purses and needs another copy handy.

She grew up in Chicago, but she sees the construction of most buildings as relatively routine. It's the scale and precision required of the bypass project that elicits a "visceral" reaction inside her, she said.

Gardner admits to driving slowly past the Phase II construction zone on her way to the grocery store, just to get a good look at the project, and occasionally incurring the ire of other drivers.

Though she eats up any information she can find about the project, she's most fascinated by the three concrete pillars near Cavalieri Road. The tallest is over 100 feet high, according to Mark Nilsen, the project's manager at Teichert/MCM Construction.

Drivers approaching construction already see part of the bridge that will carry traffic above Peaceful Oak Road. The three pillars will support a new bridge for Highway 108 over Mono Way.

"It's like they're from a science fiction movie," Gardner said. "A good one. I mean, come on. You're driving up the road and all of the sudden there's this monolith coming up out of the ground."

The imaginative Gardner also compared the pillars to Sonora's own version of the pyramids in Egypt or a particularly riveting three-ring circus.

The $53 million Phase II of the East Sonora Bypass project has been providing her with regular entertainment since it began this spring. It received almost $15 million from Proposition 1B, a transportation bond passed by California voters in 2006.

Other funding comes from the Transportation Improvement Program, the state's main road-funding mechanism.

The completed project will result in a two-lane expressway from Peaceful Oak Road to Via Este Road on a new configuration with fewer curves, according to Caltrans. It was contracted earlier this year by Teichert/MCM.

So far, construction has finished on a frontage road that opened Aug. 31. Other components of the project include the Peaceful Oak Road bridge and intersection, with the existing road becoming the highway's exit and the addition of an on-ramp.

The stretch of Highway 108 that passes through East Sonora is the second most heavily traveled section after the portion in Modesto, according to Caltrans statistics from 2011.

Phase II of the bypass project has the goal of easing congestion, decreasing travel times and improving safety. It is expected to be completed in July 2014, meaning that Gardner can look forward to many more drives through the construction zone.

Nilsen said the project may even finish next fall, depending on the amount of winter precipitation Sonora receives. He hopes to have earth-moving done by winter so crews can work on the bridges.

The bypass project is a saga decades in the making, with plans going back about 50 years, and has hit plenty of rough patches. Doubts about state funding plagued it from the outset.

Phase I of the bypass wrapped up in 2004 after being delayed by the discovery of Me-Wuk artifacts and a last-minute need to iron out bureaucratic details. It resulted in an approximately three-mile highway from Sanguinetti Road to Peaceful Oak Road.

A third phase will bring the bypass to Sunshine Road, where it is expected to conclude.

Gardner said she's impressed by what she sees as the quick progress of Phase II, with the landscape changing dramatically from day to day.

She enjoys watching dump trucks make their way up the seemingly impossible dirt slopes along the road. The dump trucks can each carry 40 tons of material, an amount roughly equivalent to a fully loaded 18-wheeler big rig, Nilsen said.

"They're all-wheel drive rigs and they're the right tool for the job, with the steep slopes," Nilsen said. "On any given day we probably have 60 employees out there and 40 to 50 pieces of equipment."

That includes cranes, excavators, dump trucks and loaders. Many pieces of equipment are worth anywhere from a quarter of a million to over $1 million dollars each.

The East Sonora Bypass project has its share of critics, who mourn its effects on the rural environment or question the use of taxpayer dollars.

For Gardner, sheer fascination with the construction work trumps everything.

"Forget all these issues for a minute and just enjoy the excitement," she said. "You're never going to see something like this again."