ONTARIO — Highway closures can put extra strain on local law enforcement, and this year’s unusually high number of interstate closures has Oregon State Police feeling the pinch.
“What it does for our officers is we have to assist [the Oregon Department of Transportation] with enforcing those closures,” said OSP Lt. Mark Duncan. “Area law enforcement have an increased strain because I typically have to reassign duties temporarily. My troops are having to redirect their efforts. They’re concentrated on this one area instead of doing the patrols or being in the areas they would have been in otherwise.”
A recent rash of road closures due to winter weather near Pendleton has caused Interstate 84 to close from Pendleton all the way to Ontario several times this year, leaving many travelers frustrated that they are unable to travel when the dangerous conditions are more than 150 miles away.
“The problem we have is that when we close the road between Pendleton and La Grande, we’ll first close it to westbound traffic in La Grande,” said ODOT spokesman Tom Strandberg. “With about 400 vehicles an hour rolling through there, it doesn’t take long for the truck stops and restaurants and side streets along the highway to get plugged up with traffic, so within a short period of time — a couple hours, usually — La Grande is going to be full of vehicles, so we’ll move the closure from La Grande back to Baker City. Then Baker City fills up, and we move it back to Ontario.”
ODOT — not law enforcement — has the authority to decide whether to close Oregon roads, Strandberg said. It’s also up to ODOT to enforce the closures, but the agency often needs assistance from law enforcement when there is a need to ticket or detain motorists who ignore the closures.
“We’ll block the ramps and the entrances to the freeway. We have a combination of ramp gates, barricades and cones. In some cases we might have to have a manned closure, but the manpower is typically needed elsewhere,” Strandberg said.
“We don’t chase people down that may have gone around a barricade or something like that, so basically, enforcement is up to law enforcement.”
A major problem in enforcing highway closures, Strandberg said, is that there isn’t an established system for allowing travelers through if they only need to travel a short distance past the point where the road is closed.
“We’re trying to work on a process where we can improve access for local traffic,” he said.
“Sometimes people only want to get to Baker City or La Grande; they don’t need to go beyond that area. As long as the road conditions are clear going up to that area, we’re trying to figure out a way to accommodate that. Right now, it’s a manpower issue.”
Manpower is OSP’s issue, too, when trying to enforce closures.
Duncan said his officers try to let motorists through on a case-by-case basis, but having enough personnel to do so is a challenge. Duncan also said his officers run into trouble with motorists who see one car being let through and decide to drive around barriers themselves, or even motorists who lie about their destinations in order to travel farther than the road closures will allow.
“We understand it’s frustrating when we have to close the freeway down, but it’s all safety related,” Strandberg said, adding that motorists should regularly check www.tripcheck.com for the most up-to-date status on closures and road conditions.
Duncan said it’s important for winter travelers to “play the ‘what-if’ game,” have a plan and plan for contingencies. He stressed that it’s especially important in the winter to keep food, water, blankets and warm clothing in cars and to stay in communication with family and friends while traveling to update them in case of delays.