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Eclipse traffic casts shades of worries

By Phil Wright

EO Media Group

Published on August 1, 2017 4:06PM

Eastern Oregon emergency workers anticipate a flood of tourists seeking to witness the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse.

Two paths to experience the path of totality in our region are Highway 26 and Highway 395, which wind through rural counties. Tom Strandberg with the Oregon Department of Transportation said the focus is on a safe flow of traffic over the narrow roads.

“Our two-lane highways can only accommodate so many vehicles per hour safely,” he said — a rate of about 1,200-1,500 vehicles.

But if 40,000 or more drivers decide to leave Grant County at once, Strandberg said traffic will bog down and one crash or stalled car would make for even longer delays.

To counter some of that, he said ODOT maintenance workers are undertaking “push, pull and drag” training.

“If it’s a stalled or stranded vehicle that is blocking traffic, our crews are getting trained on how to move those vehicles to a safer spot to keep traffic moving,” he said. But if roads are clogged, it will take crews awhile to reach the scene.

While no one has firm numbers for how many people are coming to Oregon to see the first total solar eclipse in the state in 38 years, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management is planning on at least a million visitors. Strandberg said the transportation department is working on getting a “ballpark estimate of how many visitors are in an area.”

Permanent recorders on select sections of highways 26 and 395 allow the department to collect traffic data, he said. ODOT is using those recorders to see how many vehicles are entering and leaving eclipse viewing areas in Grant County, for example, to generate rough estimates of how many vehicles remain in the vicinity.

Strandberg also said the agency is beefing up its Trip Check website to show the pace of traffic through the rural highways.

“We’re trying to implement that before the eclipse, that’s the plan,” he said.

And the state is shutting down highway construction projects through the area starting the weekend before the eclipse through midnight Tuesday, Aug. 22, the day after.

ODOT’s motto for the event is “arrive early, stay put and leave late.”

“People coming the day of might be stuck in traffic jams,” Strandberg said, and a mass exodus the moment it ends will cause the same result.

He also said visitors need to come prepared.

“We expect gas stations to run out of gas, grocery stores to run out of food,” he said, and rest areas and restaurants to be full. “It’s quite an unusual situation, but we think it’s manageable.”

He warned drivers not to rely on GPS directions for rerouting around turtle-speed traffic. Strandberg said that would mean traveling over U.S. Forest Service roads and rough terrain. Not knowing those routes or having the right vehicle could mean trouble.

“People need to stay on the main highways,” he said. “That might be a long delay, but if you are on a forest road ... you might be stuck a lot longer.”


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