As a legislator, state Sen. Cliff Bentz has been a vocal champion of raising speed limits in Eastern Oregon.
But for the 2019 session, the Ontario Republican has introduced Senate Bill 397, which allows the Oregon Department of Transportation to lower speed limits on Eastern Oregon highways under certain circumstances without action from the legislature.
Although Bentz is still happy that he supported the 2015 bill that raised speed limits on 10 segments of Eastern Oregon highways, he said there are some areas of highway that need to be adjusted.
The bill came at the request of Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce. And Betnz said there are some specific areas of concern in Malheur County, which contains five highways where the speed limit was raised.
When the speed limit increase went into effect in 2016, Highway 20 jumped from 55 miles per hour to 65 miles per hour from Ontario to Bend.
Bentz said the stretch of road from Ontario to Vale isn’t suitable for 65 miles per hour because of the surrounding population and propensity for farm equipment traffic.
Bentz said Joyce was also concerned about Highway 95, which jumped to 70 miles per hour for vehicles and 65 for trucks. The highway spans the southern portion of Malheur County from the Idaho to Nevada borders.
Under Bentz’s new bill, ODOT could lower the speed limit on a segment of highway without a traffic or engineering study in Eastern Oregon counties with populations lower than 40,000 people if they receive word from local authorities that it’s a danger to public safety.
Back in 2015 when Bentz was still in the Oregon House of Representatives, he introduced a bill that focused on raising the speed limits on state highways.
At the time, Bentz argued that raising speed limits would bring the state closer together through shorter travel times and not doing it would discriminate against rural Oregonians.
When state Rep. Greg Barreto, R-Cove, introduced a similar bill that included Interstate 84, Bentz decided to consolidate his bill with Barreto’s.
Barreto’s bill passed through the legislature with bipartisan support and Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law. The legislature expanded it further during a short session before the law went into effect in March 2016.
Since that time, an East Oregonian analysis found that deaths have trended upward on the roads where the speed limit was raised.
And a recent study from ODOT and Portland State University found that fatal and serious injury crashes went up by 36 percent on highways raised to 70 miles per hour and rose 67 percent on roads that were increased to 65 miles per hour.
According to ODOT data and Oregon State Police press releases, Malheur County has had 10 fatal crashes since March 2016, six of which were on roads where the speed limits were raised. The final figure is subject to change since OSP doesn’t report every fatal crash and ODOT’s most recent crash data is from 2016.
Bentz thinks there could be more speed enforcement, but he’s still satisfied with the overall speed limit raise.
When he was appointed to the Oregon Senate in 2018, his constituency was expanded to include Wasco County, and he likes that he’s able to drive more quickly between Ontario and The Dalles thanks to the limit increase.
Additionally, the increase is popular with constituents.
Although Senate Bill 397 could rein in some of those increases, Bentz sees it as an adjustment instead of a rebuke.
“There’s always room for improvement,” he said.