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Foiled on the Freeway
By Pat Caldwell
and Kelly Ducote
The (La Grande) Observer
A multi-vehicle crash Sunday night near Pendleton that closed the westbound lanes of Interstate 84 for 150 miles and left two people dead also reverberated across the region in terms of economic impact and stalled commerce.
The Oregon State Police, collision reconstructionists and Oregon Department of Transportation officials searched for answers at the scene of the crash — near Deadman’s Pass on Cabbage Hill — into Tuesday. OSP said initial information indicated a commercial truck traveling west near milepost 221 lost control on ice and slammed into the side of the road with its trailer partially on the roadway.
Later, two commercial trucks crashed into the trailer. During the secondary crash, two 51-year-old truck drivers died — Mario Santana of Richland, Wash., and Gerald Alexander of Houston. A fourth truck later crashed into the two vehicles involved in the secondary collision.
Besides being icy, the freeway was shrouded in dense fog at the time.
The crash prompted ODOT to close the westbound lanes between Ontario and Pendleton, effectively severing the vital commercial truck route from Boise to Portland.
Eastbound lanes remained open.
The closure was the fourth one in less than a week for the interstate because of vehicle crashes and severe weather conditions.
“This is the first time I can recall where we’ve closed it down multiple times within one week because of crashes and dense fog. It is particularly nasty this year,” said Tom Strandberg, ODOT public affairs officer in La Grande.
As the road was closed down the impact was felt from La Grande to Ontario as large numbers of semi-trucks pulled off the freeway.
According to ODOT traffic data, daily traffic on Interstate 84 is lowest during the winter but the main east-west transportation artery still sees more than 6,000 vehicles per day.
For example, at milepost 272 — in the Ladd Canyon area — average daily traffic was 6,686 in 2012. In March, 2012, 8,703 vehicles per day passed through the area near milepost 272.
Trailer trucks made up 33.4 percent of average daily traffic in the milepost 272 area in 2012. Just down the road, at the north La Grande interchange, trailer trucks were 46.4 percent of the average daily traffic.
With that much traffic on the road, a closure is bound to influence commerce.
“It is definitely an impact and there will be a financial impact for those folks who can’t move,” Strandberg said. “You have a lot of vehicles traveling that route. When you close it down for that many hours and you have that many trucks that are stuck and that is time they can’t deliver their products it definitely is an impact on the economy.”
Debra Dunn, president of the Oregon Trucking Association, could not provide specific numbers on the impacts of freeway closures, but she did concede that a long road delay is a cost that can be passed onto customers.
“If the system is interrupted, it creates quite the domino effect,” she said. “A delay like this typically moves a company into a position where they’re looking for alternative routes.”
Dunn said winter weather nationwide during the past few months has slowed the delivery of 8 percent of goods.
“Anytime there’s any delay, it’s a cost to the customer,” Dunn said.
Dunn said those costs vary between companies and depend on what type of goods a firm hauls.
“Fortunately, many of our companies are forward-thinking,” Dunn said.
Many trucking firms will re-route or move to get ahead of bad weathering. Some trucking companies go so far as to employs meteorologists. For example, 15 meteorologists in Memphis, Tenn., monitor weather for FedEx drivers and pilots.
“Our weather team allows us to make a pinpoint forecast,” FedEx spokesman Scott Fiedler said.
Based on those forecasts, FedEx works to help mitigate delays by re-routing drivers or putting shipments on planes. In severe weather, Fiedler said drivers can make the independent decision of whether it is safe to deliver.
“They are authorized, if they think the road conditions are unsafe, to return to the terminal,” Fiedler said.
Dunn said drivers are at the mercy of the transportation system — and the weather.
“We’ve seen a lot of this this winter. We’re all looking forward to spring,” Dunn said.
As for the decision to close the freeway, Strandberg said ODOT must navigate a line between ensuring the road is safe and keeping the transportation corridor open.
“We are always looking at ways to improve safety where we can,” he said.
Yet Mother Nature always has a vote in road conditions, he said.
“Fog rolls in and out. Sometimes the visibility is OK and other times you hit a wall and it goes down to less than 100 feet of visibility,” he said.
“People need to be aware that those kinds of conditions can appear. We need people to slow down and pay attention. We are looking for ways to keep travelers as safe as possible. But there is not a lot you can do when people are driving too fast for conditions,” Strandberg said.
For at least one Baker City business, the economic impact from the road closure was a good one.
Business at the Baker City Truck Corral unsurprisingly boomed after the interstate was closed, restaurant manager Cindy Coonts said.
“I mean we were packed,” she said.
Coonts said the sudden influx of truckers and other travelers forced her to call for extra help.
“I had to bring in extra waitresses, bring in an extra cook. It was very good for business but a sad circumstance,” she said.