Interstate closures could disrupt fewer holiday plans in the future as the Oregon Department of Transportation experiments with using rock salt on Interstate 84 between Boardman and the Idaho border during icy weather.
“Salt becomes a tool during those times that have a really deleterious effect, if you will, on travel plans,” ODOT spokesman Peter Murphy said.
Murphy did not have a total of how many hours Interstate 84 was closed this winter, but the East Oregonian posted on Facebook about closures along the route between Baker City and Boardman on 16 different days during December and January, including a closure two days before Christmas and two different incidents in January that stretched over multiple days.
The department got permission from the legislature a few years ago to conduct a small pilot program near the California border, and has been researching best practices in other states. House Bill 2017, the transportation package passed this summer, allows for ODOT to expand the practice between the Idaho border and Boardman, stopping short of the Columbia Gorge, as it develops policies for more widespread use.
Murphy said ODOT is constructing special environmentally conscious storage sheds for the project, including ones near Pendleton, Irrigon and Mission. The sheds will be large enough for trucks to back into, with sealed flooring shaped to keep salty runoff from escaping and seeping into the ground. There will also be a special set-up for washing the trucks used to transport and spread the salt that will collect the salty water for storage in ponds.
The salt will be dispersed using a special nozzle attached to ODOT’s sanders. The state will continue to use plows, gravel, magnesium chloride de-icer and other tools but will plan to use salt in certain hard-to-clear areas in the mountains when other methods aren’t cutting it.
“It’s not going to be the first resort, or even necessarily the second or third,” Murphy said.
He said the salt won’t necessarily prevent all Cabbage Hill closures, but should make closures shorter. One of the problems along Interstate 84 in Eastern Oregon is the lack of truck parking in areas like Baker City, which pushes the closures farther and father west as there becomes nowhere for trucks to pull off safely even if the road is clear enough to drive on.
Although most states use rock salt on their roads, including all of Oregon’s neighbors, Oregon has long avoided the practice due to its corrosive effect on asphalt, bridges and vehicles, as well as concerns about runoff polluting nearby soil and streams. But rock salt is also particularly effective in quickly melting through a layer of snow and ice, which helps prevent the kind of crashes and closures that plagued Interstate 84 all winter.
Murphy said salt isn’t a cure-all, and in certain conditions when it gets too cold it isn’t effective at all. Use of salt on problem areas will be left up to the discretion of ODOT’s district managers.
Cities and counties also have to grapple with questions of how best to clear snowy roads during the winter. Ron Sivey, Hermiston’s street superintendent, said that the city does not use rock salt because getting set up to store and use it is too expensive for the city. The city uses a liquid de-icer on the roads, and “will continue to use that,” he said.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.