I-84 Series Part 2: Uncommon Commute

By Bill Rautenstrauch, Jayson Jacoby and Chris Collins February 20, 2013 09:13 am

Chris Baxter/The (La Grande) Observer Gerald Hopkins drives his pickup truck along Interstate 84 near La Grande. Hopkins, who lives in Summerville and works at North Powder, makes the 80-mile round trip four or five times per week. His drive includes a 25-mile stretch of the freeway between La Grande and North Powder.
Chris Baxter/The (La Grande) Observer Gerald Hopkins drives his pickup truck along Interstate 84 near La Grande. Hopkins, who lives in Summerville and works at North Powder, makes the 80-mile round trip four or five times per week. His drive includes a 25-mile stretch of the freeway between La Grande and North Powder.

By Bill Rautenstrauch

The (La Grande) Observer

Jayson Jacoby and Chris Collins

Baker City Herald

After more than 200 trips through Ladd Canyon, the Interstate 84 pass between Baker City and La Grande known for its fearsome blizzards, Nick Myatt knows one thing for certain.

His next car will have four-wheel drive.

“This experience will definitely affect my decision about what car to buy next,” said Myatt, who lives in Baker City and works for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Since June 2011, when he was assigned to a temporary job with the agency in La Grande, Myatt has made the 90-mile round trip five days a week most weeks.

He traveled most of those miles in his 2002 Chevrolet Cavalier.

It’s a decent choice for the task, with its relatively economical four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, which offers better traction than rear-wheel drive.

But not as good as four-wheel drive.

“It can be a pretty dicey stretch of freeway,” said Myatt. 

And an unpredictable one.

Although Ladd Canyon is the most notorious part of Myatt’s commute, he said any section of the route can be treacherous.

“It entirely depends on the day,” he said. “Some days it’s Ladd, or it’s worse between Baker City and Baldock Slough (about five miles north of Baker City). You just never know.”

Despite the sometimes difficult driving conditions, which range from black ice to whiteouts to fog, Myatt said he has actually witnessed only one accident, and never been in one himself.

There have been a few “close calls,” however, he said.

“Most everyone realizes that they need to be cautious, and traffic slows down,” Myatt said. “There’s an occasional SUV that comes blowing past you, going way too fast for the conditions.”

He has many times seen the aftermath of a driver who perhaps underestimated the lack of traction.

“I’ve seen as many as six trucks off the road just in the three-mile stretch by the rest area (in Baker Valley, about eight miles north of Baker City),” Myatt said.

He considers black ice the most dangerous hazard because unlike, say, a heavy snowfall, black ice is not always readily apparent.

Myatt is hardly the only Northeastern Oregon resident whose job requires him to ply I-84 on a near-daily basis.

Gerald Hopkins, Summerville, commutes to North Powder, four or five days a week

Hopkins commutes from his home in Summerville in the central Grande Ronde Valley to the school in North Powder,  a town hard by the freeway about 20 miles south of La Grande.

It’s an 80-mile round trip Hopkins makes four or five days a week. He catches the freeway in La Grande in the morning, and gets off it at night at the same exit.

The greatest danger of the route, in his view, is that some drivers, many of them probably not familiar with the area’s topography and weather, don’t recognize the risks and do careless things.

“The main thing is, people who are not familiar with the road are the ones who get into trouble,” said Hopkins, who’s the principal at North Powder Charter School.

He said that in winter, a particularly troublesome spot on his drive to work is the eastbound stretch of road leading down from the top of the Ladd Canyon hill toward North Powder. 

“That’s where I see a lot of accidents. It’s steep and they get going too much, and they can’t brake or their brakes lock up,” Hopkins said. “Most of the accidents I see are trucks not used to the icy conditions and moving too fast.”

He added that trucks stopped in Ladd Canyon to chain up have potential to clog the freeway and create hazards during heavy snowfall. 

“Sometimes they double up and I’ve had a hard time getting around them. I’ve had to wait behind,” he said.

Before going to work at North Powder, Hopkins was a school administrator 13 years at Huntington, a town along I-84 about 50 miles east of Baker City. He had a place to stay in Huntington, but also spent a lot of time driving to and from his home in Summerville.

He said that in his long experience as a regular I-84 traveler, he’s seen the Oregon Department of Transportation work hard to keep the road passable and safe.

“The highway department does a good job. They usually have police up there in the mountains when the snow’s coming down hard,” he said.

Sandi Fuller, Weiser, Idaho, commutes to Baker City two or three times per week for the past nine years

“I don’t love the drive,” said Fuller, who works at Marvin Wood Products in Baker City. “But my circumstances warrant that I make it.”

Fuller’s commute includes a 50-mile stretch of I-84 between Farewell Bend, just over the Malheur County line, and Baker City.

It’s not an especially imposing section in a topographical sense, with no grades to rival Ladd Canyon or Cabbage Hill.

But the route climbs from just over 2,000 feet elevation at Farewell Bend to 4,000 at the Pleasant Valley summit about eight miles east of Baker City.

“The temperature difference between Weiser and Baker City can be as much as 10 degrees,” Fuller said. “I always check the road conditions on my phone before I leave, and I have a thermometer in my car that I pay attention to.”

Fuller also is well-acquainted with Cabbage Hill; she lived in Milton-Freewater, near the Washington border, while she was attending Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.

Cabbage Hill’s combination of 6-percent grades, curves and frequent cloaking fog — which sometimes coats the road with ice — can be intimidating, Fuller said.

“Sometimes it’s a good idea to just stay home,” she said. “Awareness of the conditions is huge.”

Fuller said that although she thinks advances in auto technology, in particular four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes, probably lend some drivers a false sense of security, she rarely sees what she would describe as “reckless” driving.

“People tend to be careful when they need to be,” she said.

Wendee Morrissey, school bus driver for Baker School District for 27 years

Although the notion of driving a big bus — and one loaded with precious teenage cargo, no less — might seem intimidating to many motorists, Morrissey said there’s actually an advantage to all that mass.

Buses actually have pretty good traction, despite being rear-wheel drive vehicles, said Morrissey, whose job requires her to haul Baker High School sports teams on the entire section of Interstate 84 through the Blue Mountains.

The Bulldogs’ conference opponents include Ontario, 70 miles southeast of Baker City, and Milton-Freewater east of Pendleton; the latter trip includes about 90 miles of the freeway between Baker City and Mission, near Pendleton.

Besides the added traction, buses have an advantage in height compared to passenger cars.

“Visibility is so much better in a school bus,” Morrissey said. “You can see what’s coming and prepare for it.”

Baker’s school buses are equipped with automatic chains — which drivers can activate from their seat — as well as conventional chains.

Morrissey, who has never had an accident during her 27-year career, said the best way to deal with ice and snow is also the simplest: slow down.

“Sometimes you do 10 mph,” she said. “You give yourself as much space as you can.”

Morrissey said she worries as much about water puddled in lane ruts, and wind gusts, as she does about snow and ice.

Puddles can cause buses to hydroplane, and the tall, long buses are vulnerable to strong winds.

Brian Tannehill, North Powder, drives a truck for Hodgen Distributing in La Grande

Another frequent commuter on the interstate is Brian Tannehill, an employee of La Grande-based Hodgen Distributing who lives in North Powder.

These days, Tannehill delivers beverage products to customers in Baker and Wallowa Counties in a minivan, but in other times he drove a truck. He said he’s been driving truck in Northeastern Oregon off and on the last 41 years.

He said over that long stretch of time, I-84 has become much busier.

“I started when I was 21 years old. I can remember a time when I’d top Ladd Canyon and look off toward the Baker Valley at five in the morning, and I’d see the headlights of one or two cars. Now it’s a steady stream,” Tannehill said.

ODOT figures bear out his observation. 

In 1972, the average traffic count along the stretch was around 4,500 vehicle per day. Now, the number surpasses 9,000.

Tannehill said that over the years he’s learned to adjust his driving to conditions, knows by the look and feel of things whether he should be doing 60 miles an hour or 35. Like Hopkins, he thinks most of the wrecks on the Interstate happen because of driver error.

“That’s everything. You just have people go flying by you. They go too fast and don’t realize they might have to brake suddenly,” he said. “I’ve never seen a dead body, but you see the wrecks. I know there’s been a tremendous amount of truck crashes.”

Tannehill said he thinks vehicles are better equipped now than they were in the past, and he’s especially happy that the van he drives has siped tires that hold the road well. 

He also said he’s pleased with the condition of the highway and its safety features, though he said he questions whether the heat strips installed in Ladd Canyon a few years ago are truly effective. He also said that sometimes, when the snow is particularly heavy and the wind is blowing hard, reader boards can be difficult to make out.

As for ODOT’s maintenance crews, Tannehill had nothing but praise.

“I think they do a tremendous job. They’re out there 24-7,” he said.

Mitch Southwick, Baker County sheriff, and former Oregon State Police officer

Southwick, who began his third term as Baker County sheriff in January, was an Oregon State Police officer in his former life.

He retired in 2000 after 28 years with the Oregon State Police, a career that ended in Baker City, where he served as station commander from 1994 to 2000.

Southwick, who grew up in Wallowa County, is no stranger to narrow, winding mountain roads. And he’s seen his share of Interstate 84 crashes over the course of a career in which he served in Umatilla, Hermiston and La Grande as well as Baker City.

Southwick says in most cases, those crashes were tied to drivers traveling too fast for the conditions and not being prepared with traction tires or chains when the weather dictated their use.

He pointed to freezing fog and icy conditions that hampered freeway travel near Pendleton on Dec. 30, 2012, the day a Canadian tour bus crashed, killing nine people and injuring 38 others.

Southwick  pointed to media reports that described the area as “a treacherous mountain road.”

“But the accident happened up on top where it’s straight and level,” he said.

Southwick says he’s not surprised by statistics that show more fatal crashes happen in the summertime rather than during the winter months.

“When you have it all over — snow and slick roads — people drive accordingly,” he said.

And Southwick notes that many fatalities and injuries befall travelers who fail to wear their seatbelts, as Oregon law requires, and are ejected from their vehicles.

He recalled from his time in Umatilla County that driver fatigue and boredom accounted for a good number of crashes, as well.

“From Arlington to Pendleton there are six curves total,” he said. “We used to have a lot of accidents involving people who left Portland that morning and the cause was usually fatigue.”

Matt Henneke, La Grande, commutes to the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton

Henneke works as an information technology specialist for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. 

Throughout the week, Henneke makes the drive along I-84, negotiating along the way the curves and 6-percent grades of Cabbage Hill. He said the road is well-maintained and he has no issues with the way ODOT does its job.

“I have to drive the road twice in a day, and I see the plows out, keeping the road clear of obstacles,” he said.

He added that for him, the key to driving safely in winter is to test the conditions and adjust speed accordingly.

He also said that while he often sees people driving too fast for the conditions, he thinks people going too slow can be a hazard as well.

“I don’t think they should be doing 20 miles an hour when they could be doing 50,” he said.

Ty Duby, Oregon State Police sergeant in Baker City

Sgt. Ty Duby, who has spent the past 15 years in the OSP criminal division, is supervising the patrol unit of the Baker City office temporarily this winter, with staffing  at an all-time low of four troopers. They are charged with patrolling the 50 miles of freeway between Weatherby, southeast of Baker City, and North Powder.

In the past the officers’ responsibilities had extended another 20 miles southeast to Farewell Bend, but that line was drawn in because of the low number of troopers available to respond, Duby said. Officers from La Grande and Ontario are called upon when extra help is needed and OSP also has had to rely on the Baker County Sheriff’s Department to help provide coverage throughout the county.

Duby said the officers responded to “a ton” of crashes on icy roads this winter.

“Everybody says it was obvious they were driving too fast for the icy conditions,” he said.

In most cases, the crash involved just one vehicle and was the result of driver inexperience.

“They start sliding and then brake,” he said. “They spin out of control, slide into the median and roll over once.”

Duby said drivers are especially surprised when they travel through the Encina area at Milepost 313, about 10 miles south of Baker City.  With an elevation of 4,028 feet above sea level, it is the second highest point on the freeway between Portland and Ontario, behind only the 4,193-foot Blue Mountain Summit near Meacham.

Crashes happen as the travelers make their way through Baker City, which is about 600 feet lower and less likely to have ice or snow, and then hit slick roads just a few miles out of town.

“They get up there and it’s iced over,” Duby said, and they lose control.

He says he believes many crashes also are caused by people falling asleep or being distracted whether they are talking on their cellphone, fishing for something on the floorboard or adjusting the radio.

Duby says he’s slid off the road en route to skiing at Anthony Lakes, but it’s a head-on collision his brother, Tad, was involved in years ago that made an impression on him. 

“People are just oblivious for the most part,” he said. “It’s weird, until you’ve been in a crash — especially inexperienced drivers — you don’t realize how fast it can happen and the magnitude of it. It’s hard to fathom.” 

 

Come what may, ODOT employees just keep plowing ahead

 By Bill Rautenstrauch

The (La Grande) Observer

LA GRANDE — Island City resident Donny Walker has worked in road maintenance for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) the past 12 years. 

During the spring, summer and fall he is a bridge crew coordinator, but in winter he works highway maintenance on the stretch of Interstate 84 running from Spring Creek to the west of La Grande to North Powder to the east. For about four months out of the year, he drives a plow.

Following a snowfall on a recent Thursday morning, Walker and his co-worker Jimmy Low were sent out to clean slush off the barrier separating the east and westbound lanes between La Grande and Spring Creek. They worked in tandem, Walker’s plow scraping the barrier, and Low coming behind to clean up. The two stayed in close contact via radio.

Walker seemed to be a man content with his occupation. He also expressed high regard for his co-workers.

“A lot of people with ODOT try and take a whole lot of pride in what they do,” he said as he maneuvered close to the barrier, scraping and sending a spray of dirty slush and snow out into the roadway. 

The proximity of the truck to the barrier gave a reporter along for the ride a little case of nerves, but Walker made the job look easy. He said that in all his years with ODOT, he’s never been involved in a crash, though he has seen plenty. 

More often than not, he said, wrecks on the Interstate involve someone going too fast.

“Ninety percent of them are speed-related, people not driving for the conditions,” he said, just as a small white car zipped past the plow and cut suddenly in front of it. Walker tapped his brakes.

“It gets kind of crazy at times. You’ve got to keep your cool,” he said.

ODOT crash statistics corroborate Walker’s experiences.

Of the 51 fatal crashes on I-84 between Pendleton and Ontario that occurred from 2002 through 2011, 30 involved a driver who either exceeded the speed limit or was driving too fast for the conditions, according to ODOT.

Winter maintenance is around-the-clock job, with work divided between two day crews and two night crews. Walker said the crew he’s a member of works 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, though the hours can vary.

“Sometimes we get called in early, but it’s no big thing,” he said.

Walker said that in his dozen years as an ODOT maintenance man, he’s seen his share of wrecks and wishes he hadn’t. He also said he is convinced that most of the crashes along the Interstate are the kind that could have been avoided.

“Ninety percent of them are speed related, people going too fast for conditions,” he said.

Walker said he and his fellow workers are grateful to have equipment they can rely on. That day, he was driving a brand-new Volvo truck equipped with a front plow and a wing plow, and carrying 1,800 gallons of de-icer. Most functions are controlled by a joystick close by the driver’s hand.

“It’s way better than before when you had to reach behind you,” Walker said.

Walker said he thinks ODOT does a good job of educating the public about the highway and its conditions. The department has installed about a dozen variable message signs between Pendleton and Ontario in the last 10 years. It also maintains a 24/7 website, www.tripcheck.com, that gives up to the minute reports on every highway maintained by the agency.

Walker said it’s disappointing more people don’t use the tools available. The website carries up-to-the-minute road conditions on highways throughout the state, with those conditions visible via road cams. 

He said if more people used the website — which these days can be accessed with a cell phone — they’d be better prepared for what’s ahead.

“ODOT’s spent a lot of money getting the word out for the traveling public,” Walker said.  “Tripcheck’s a really big bonus. Everybody’s got a smartphone these days.”

Walker said a consistent problem in winter involves truckers not stopping to chain up when the conditions call for it. 

“On a five- or six-percent grade, that’s where we get a lot of trouble. People don’t want to put their chains on and they spin out,” he said.

By the time Walker and Low went out to clean the barrier that Thursday, the roadway itself had been cleared and the sun was shining. Walker said this was a milk run compared to other days. 

Anything can happen when bad weather combines with excessive speed.

“I’ve been up in Ladd Canyon in whiteout conditions. There are times when you don’t know if someone’s stopping in front of you or getting ready to run into you from behind,” he said.