Now that state transportation officials have gone through the motions of holding public meetings about their plan to downgrade maintenance on Highway 3, we can ask ourselves whether the exercise served the local public interest.

The answer, we fear, is that it probably served that interest hardly at all. And, in one sense at least, it may not even be serving the state.

By now, most observers of the issue understand that the Oregon Department of Transportation – increasingly strapped for cash like any big public agency these near-depression days – needs to trim gobs from its highway maintenance budget. In deciding where to deliver its ax blows, though, ODOT applies one criterion – number of vehicle trips – that is biased stubbornly against rural areas such as Wallowa County. It also fails to take into account the potentially vital nature of a fair percentage of our North Highway’s vehicle trips – especially trips made in winter, when maintenance demands are highest.

Consider: Highway 3 is our way to Lewiston, a critical port for our agricultural products, notably grain. Stored locally upon harvest, grain can be removed from storage and sent to port at any time of year, as need arises. Consider further: Heating oil shipments typically reach us from the north via Highway 3. Compromising this route’s integrity would be a false savings.

Craig Willis, owner and operator of trucking Enterprise firm Farm Supply Distributors, which frequently transports heating oil as well as ag supplies over Highway 3, has been outspoken in his opposition of ODOT’s planned closure of the Flora maintenance station. He points out that Oregon’s commercial motor carriers have seen their state road taxes and commercial vehicle registration fees both shoot up 25% during the past three years even while ODOT has been decreasing services to carriers. One of the more recent casualties is the motor carrier services office at Farewell Bend, one of three such offices the state closed in May. Viewed in this context, reduced road maintenance may represent only the latest in a series of budget-related moves that make it more expensive and difficult to ship freight in Oregon. The latest is the worst, however, because it threatens to degrade safety.

Ah, safety. For Wallowa County residents, the North Highway maintenance issue isn’t only about necessary freight shipments and the local economy. It’s also about busing kids every school day from the county’s northern reaches down to Enterprise (and back again), and generally keeping a path open to all points north of us.

Admittedly, times are hard, but ODOT continues to envision major improvements to greater-traveled Highway 82 – including, sometime this decade maybe, a passing lane between Lostine and Enterprise. The state agency is currently leaving no door ajar, however, that would allow it to affordably undo the ill-advised measure it’s hatching in Flora. To the contrary, the plan calls for slamming that door by selling the maintenance station property after hanging onto it only through this coming winter, and never mind a deeply depressed real estate market that bodes the most minimal return.

Selling the property, we should tell ODOT in no uncertain terms, is the most unacceptable piece in its scheme.

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