Big signs

Tom Strandberg, a public information officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation, examines some of the larger message boards his agency will install later this year along Interstate 84 in Northeast Oregon.

LA GRANDE — Electronic message boards almost larger than life soon may save lives on Interstate 84 between La Grande and Pendleton.

The Oregon Department of Transportation over the next year plans to install about a dozen electronic message boards, some of which are 10 feet tall and span a width of 30 feet. 

"They are meant to improve safety during adverse winter conditions," said ODOT spokesperson Tom Strandberg.

Help with poor driving conditions is particularly important in Northeast Oregon, where bad weather plays a role in about 60% of serious crashes on Interstate 84, according to the transportation department.

The size of the message boards allows drivers to see them from a greater distance. This is important because the signs are designed to rotate a series of three messages, such as information on weather and roadway conditions, chain up requirements, warnings about crashes, road construction activity and more. Strandberg said drivers would not have time to read all the messages if they were on smaller boards.

The Snow Zone Safety Project work will cost $11 million, including $4 million from House Bill 2017, also known as the Keep Oregon Moving Transportation Bill. The Oregon Legislature approved the bill in 2017. 

The messages will come from 10 new weather stations with sensors to detect conditions and cameras to provide visual information to operators. The weather stations' sensors will measure the reflection of light off of pavement to detect ice, Strandberg said. A dozen signs with flashing lights warning of curves also will be part of this project. 

Not all of the Snow Zone Safety Project will involve signs and message boards. For example, an automated gate at the westbound on-ramp from exit 224, 16 miles west of Pendleton, also will be part of the project. The gate will allow for faster closure of Interstate 84 when the weather is bad and reduce the number of vehicles entering the freeway during hazardous conditions, thus cutting down the likelihood of a crash, Strandberg said.

He said ODOT picked exit 224 for the automatic gate because of its remote location five miles west of Deadman Pass, and it takes state road crews longer to reach that spot. And when someone has to travel far to shut a gate, he said, that often means the workers has less time to run a snow plow.   

Non-electronic work for the project includes the installation of nine miles of guard cable between the eastbound and westbound lanes from Deadman Pass and Meacham to near the Spring Creek exit area about 12 miles west of La Grande. 

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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