Safe roads imperative on Hwy. 3

By Observer Upload June 29, 2012 12:37 pm

The best people can say about the pending closure of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s highway maintenance site near Flora in Wallowa County is that the two people staffing it get to keep their jobs. The worst is that the snow will fly as it always has, and driving State Highway 3 could get trickier in the winter than ever before.

The highway, known informally in Wallowa County as the North Highway, isn’t a major state route but is in fact a critical link between Enterprise and Clarkston, Wash., Lewiston, Idaho, and points beyond. It’s traveled by truckers and tourists alike, and by ambulances and other emergency vehicles.

Not only that, farms and ranches and retirement homes are scattered along the route. The people living “out north” use the highway on a daily basis to get to jobs and school, do their shopping, and otherwise conduct their business.

Highway 3 starts in Enterprise and runs through wild mountainous country, and as it nears the Washington State Line it plunges downward via Rattlesnake Grade, that high, lonesome section of road so aptly named for its seemingly eternal series of sharp twists and turns. In sum, the highway isn’t easy to drive even in good weather. In winter, it’s a real bear.

ODOT plans to close the Flora maintenance site some 36 miles out of Enterprise and move the two employees who work there to the district office because of statewide budget cuts amounting to $1.8 - $2.5 million. With Enterprise-based crews maintaining the North Highway, the department will save the cost of operating the station, especially the cost of fuel to run the generator that powers the station. The department may pick up some additional revenue by selling the 2.5 acre maintenance site.

Keeping the highway safe

District Manager Mike Buchanan told a Wallowa County crowd at a recent meeting ODOT will bring crews on early and keep them out late to clear the highway in winter. He also said the department will rely on citizens to report bad conditions, and that there is a “possibility” of installing road weather stations that detect pavement temperatures and visibility.

While we have faith in ODOT’s commitment to keeping the state’s highways open and safe to drive, we don’t think a mere “possibility” of installing those stations is enough. Given the highway’s local importance — and possible hazards ranging from black ice to rock slides — ODOT should use every technological tool available to give North Highway drivers an edge. 

ODOT should also clearly pledge the North Highway will get at least the same level of maintenance it has in the past, regardless of whether the effort starts at Enterprise or Flora. ODOT bean counters may have determined the highway is a low volume road with “only” 320 vehicles traveling on it each day, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a critical need for dependable, year-round access to Wallowa County’s north country.