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ODOT braces for influx of travelers for eclipse


Projections call for as many as 1 million travelers on interstates in Oregon, such as Interstate 84 and state highways for Monday’s total solar eclipse. The Oregon Department of Transportation has management strategies in place to accommodate the increased number of travelers. (Cherise Kaechele, The Observer)

While the Oregon Department of Transportation doesn’t know exactly how many travelers will be on Eastern Oregon highways for Monday’s total solar eclipse, the state agency is preparing for a worst-case scenario.

Statewide projections call for as many as 1 million travelers that could be on state highways for the eclipse. ODOT has management strategies in place to accommodate the increased number of travelers. For example, incident response crews will park at predetermined locations along many highways to help people and move vehicles causing backups. ODOT does not plan to close any state highway, but sheer traffic volume could still overwhelm the system.

“A lot of preparation has been going on, talking with the locals and other communities,” Tom Strandberg, Oregon Department of Transportation Region 5 public information officer, said. “We’ve been talking to folks who are involved in coordinating events who are going to be bringing people in.”

Strandberg said the biggest concern his agency has are the travelers who decide at the last minute to go on a “roadtrip to see the eclipse.” Those who treat this once-in-a-generation event like a college football game day — arriving just beforehand and leaving immediately afterward — might be in for a serious shock, Strandberg said. There could be thousands of other travelers doing the same thing.

“Those folks who don’t plan are probably not going to have a good time, because they’re going to be stuck in traffic,” Strandberg said. “Our goal is to (prepare) people so they are going to enjoy themselves. We want them to remember this as a good time and a good experience. If you don’t plan things out ahead of time and prepare, you’re probably going to be miserable.”

Strandberg said joint information centers — to be set up in La Grande and John Day — staffed by public information officers from the participating federal, state and local agencies will be coordinating with emergency operations centers to relay up-to-date information about road conditions to the public.

“We’re going to have incident command for ODOT to monitor what’s going on,” Strandberg said. “We want to get that information out to the public as best as possible and also coordinate with emergency services, law enforcement and the various communities that are holding these events. So if we do have an incident we can get information out there on it.”

ODOT is also worried about travelers stopping on Interstate 84 or other state highways to watch the eclipse if they don’t make it to a good viewing spot on time.

“We expect folks are going to stop and pull over. So for that very concentrated period of time, there won’t be a whole lot of movement on highways,” Craig Sipp, the ODOT Region 5 manager in La Grande, said. “It would be best to find a wide area and pull over beforehand — 15 or 30 minutes before.”

State agencies are also concerned about the heightened potential for wildfires. The increase in cars on highways surrounded by dry grass and vegetation makes parts of Oregon particularly susceptible. And with heavy traffic, responding to a wildfire would be especially difficult, Strandberg said.

“We’ve experienced fires in the past that have blocked highways and threatened homes,” he said. “We are monitoring that, and we’ll be in touch with the Forest Service. If there’s a (fire) event we’ll be in the same room and talk about what needs to be done.”

Strandberg said ODOT is viewing the solar eclipse as a chance to assess its systems and preparedness for an even bigger event — such as a Cascadia earthquake.

“There are a lot of unknowns. One way we’re trying to look at this in a positive light (is as) an opportunity to test our systems,” he said.