Taking the bite out of I-84

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisTraffic along Interstate 84 west of Cabbage Hill negotiates rainy conditions on the freeway Thursday outside of Pendleton.

Many an Eastern Oregon resident has been inconvenienced by closures of Interstate 84, but for some those closures have meant the death of a loved one in a crash.

Human error and vehicle malfunctions can cause crashes on even flat, low-lying sections of interstate. But as drivers pass Boardman and enter into the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Region 5 they face new layers of challenges. In “hot spot” areas like Cabbage Hill and Ladd Canyon drivers wind up steep curves, navigating past slow semi-trucks with flashing warning lights, or zoom down a series of sharp angles. Rapid changes in elevation cause alternating climates where ice or snow can appear unexpectedly, taking the road from tricky to treacherous during colder months.

In the region, I-84’s victims so far this year have included a 48-year-old Boardman man, a 50-year-old Spokane man and a 58-year old Pendleton woman returning home from Nixyaawii Community School’s championship basketball game in Baker City.

ODOT is taking on an multi-pronged, $11 million project to try and prevent future crashes between Boardman and the Idaho border. The goal is to reduce all weather-related crashes per vehicle miles traveled by 25 percent by 2025, and speed-related crashes by 20 percent during that same time period.

“There are specific areas we know are trouble spots,” ODOT Region 5 spokesman Tom Strandberg said.

Danger often comes from a combination of speed, distracted driving and adverse weather conditions. According to ODOT, 60 percent of crashes on I-84 in Eastern Oregon are related to weather conditions, while in 70 percent speed was a factor.

For travelers trying to make decisions about whether it is safe to proceed through the coming miles, ODOT plans to install a new road camera at Milepost 247 near Spring Creek and 10 new road sensors that can automatically pick up on conditions like ice or snow, which can then be automatically broadcast over 12 new variable message signs along the interstate.

Lt. Mike Turner of the Oregon State Police’s Pendleton office said he and others from OSP spent several day-long sessions consulting with ODOT about ways to make the interstate safer. One of the big problems with the stretch of interstate between Pendleton and La Grande, he said, was that the conditions change so rapidly — roads might be bare and dry in one section and covered in ice two miles later.

“Drivers have to be really attentive to the road conditions,” he said. “Any time drivers can be notified of changing road conditions ahead, that’s a good thing.”

Strandberg said as self-driving cars and autonomous semi-trucks become more common, ODOT expects that such road condition information from sensors will be fed directly to vehicles on the road, helping the computer system know — among other things — to slow down before the vehicle hits the first patch of ice or snow.

On some stretches, particularly milepost 217-252 (including Cabbage Hill and Meacham), variable message signs will be used to post lower speed limits during poor road conditions. According to ODOT the signs could prevent an estimated nine crashes per year along that stretch alone.

On Cabbage Hill — which according to ODOT sees an average of 3.2 crashes per mile each year — two miles of westbound curves will be marked with LED lighting, making it easier for nighttime drivers to tell where the road ahead curves. The area will also get yellow reflective markers attached along more than 12 miles of guardrail.

In the Grande Ronde River Canyon west of La Grande — with an average of 3 crashes per mile per year — flashing curve warning signs will remind drivers to slow down and stay alert.

Strandberg said similar strategies have worked well in the Burnt River Canyon area south of Baker City, which got flashing lights, curve warnings and variable speed signs in 2006.

“We’ve really reduced crashes along there,” he said.

Along two different stretches, from Deadman’s Pass to the Meacham turnoff and near Spring Creek (Milepost 229-237 and 249-250 respectively) the department plans to put up steel cable barriers between the westbound and eastbound lanes to prevent crossover crashes. The small portion of Interstate 82 between I-84 and the Washington border was also studied and will likely see some enhanced delineation as well.

Turner said steel cable barriers are effective in preventing such crashes, but they do make it more difficult for law enforcement to turn around and head the other direction when responding to an emergency — something ODOT will take into consideration when designing the project.

Chain-up areas, particularly between La Grande and North Powder, will also be improved with systems that alert drivers to available space to park and put on chains, and ODOT is looking at remote-controlled gates and other improvements to help block off interchanges more quickly after a crash. The department will also be implementing new policies and procedures to improve the road closure process and reduce its impacts.

Both Strandberg and Turner said it was too early to have solid data on how the 2016 speed limit increase from 65 miles per hour to 70 has affected crashes, but they reminded drivers that the posted speed limit is the maximum speed that drivers should be going during ideal conditions. Rain, ice, snow, fog, darkness or other factors are a reason to slow down.

The overall Interstate 84 Corridor Management Plan is expected to be implemented in phases over the next few years, with new construction starting in 2019. $4 million was allotted in the 2017 transportation package and the rest of the $11 million will come from various sources.

“All of these things are going to be beneficial,” Strandberg said. “Now that it’s in this plan, it will be a lot easier to get funding.”


Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.

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