Interstate 84

Traffic navigates Interstate 84 near Meacham on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.

The first widespread snowstorm of the season swept across Northeastern Oregon Sunday morning and some drivers struggled to stay on a slippery stretch of Interstate 84 through the Blue Mountains.

A rash of minor accidents in the westbound lanes of the freeway between La Grande and Pendleton prompted the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to close the westbound lanes for about 4 hours Wednesday afternoon.

The westbound lanes were closed between Milepost 226, near the top of Cabbage Hill, and La Grande around noon on Sunday, said Tom Strandberg, a spokesman for ODOT in La Grande.

The westbound closure was extended to Baker City around 2 p.m. as truck parking areas neared capacity in La Grande, Strandberg said.

Around the same time ODOT put a message on its video sign near Ontario telling westbound commercial truck drivers — who make up between 40% and 50% of the traffic on the freeway, Strandberg said — to exit at Ontario. The westbound lanes remained open to other traffic from Ontario to Baker City.

The freeway reopened to all traffic around 4 p.m. Sunday, Strandberg said.

The closure was a “proactive” step intended to prevent a major, multivehicle crash that could block one side of the freeway for many hours, Strandberg said.

“What we’re trying to do is shut things down when people are having trouble controlling their vehicles,” he said. “We’re pretty lucky we didn’t have any major incidents.”

Although it’s hardly uncommon for vehicles to slide off the freeway during snowstorms, Strandberg said he suspects Sunday’s weather, as the first major wintry episode along the freeway this fall, “caught some people off guard.”

In particular the storm might have caught some drivers who haven’t installed their winter traction tires.

The legal season to use studded tires started Nov. 1.

Strandberg said he’s not sure why the bulk of the problems were in the westbound lanes. The eastbound lanes weren’t closed Sunday.

There was much less snow in Ladd Canyon, so the storm didn’t pose a test for the newest arrow in ODOT’s quiver — the third lane on the steep uphill grade on the eastbound freeway.

Strandberg said ODOT officials are confident that the new lane will prevent some of the truck crashes that can block the eastbound lanes.

“We feel that is going to be a big help in keeping the road open,” he said.

The challenge in Ladd Canyon is that traffic has to negotiate a relatively sharp curve just before starting up the hill. The curve, combined with the tendency for ice to form on the former bridge over Ladd Creek, made that spot a notorious site of winter pileups.

ODOT, in addition to adding the third lane, replaced the bridge with a culvert, so the freeway no longer has open air beneath it and thus is less prone to freezing.

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