One of the biggest obstacles to commerce and economic development in Wallowa County is the cost of transportation.
Wallowa County residents see the "transportation tax" in the form of higher prices on almost every thing they buy, particularly everyday items such as food, fuel, hardware, and consumer staples. Higher prices arising from the cost of shipping coupled with an annual median income of $22,500 -- 30 percent lower than the state average -- makes balancing the family budget a difficult task in many cases.
In light of this a recent decision of the Oregon Transportation Commission allowing longer trucks on Highway 3 is a welcome change in the state transportation system.
Under the new rules truckers can now pull two trailers instead of just one on the two-lane highway between Enterprise and Lewiston. Previously, semi trucks were limited to one trailer because of the hairpin curves along Buford Grade. These notorious switch backs along the breaks of the Grande Ronde canyon are so sharp that it is virtually impossible for a semi pulling two trailers to negotiate the sharpest curves without crossing the center line. That is why for years the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has prohibited double trailers on Highway 3 -- the risk of big rigs drifting into the oncoming lane and causing an accident was greater than highway officials were willing to accept. Anyone who has driven this stretch of highway can certainly appreciate their concerns about safety -- Highway 3 is a cliffhanger that commands the utmost respect.
It appears that drivers are well aware o this and give Highway 3 the respect that it deserves. When truckers are on Buford Grade, a six-mile-long gauntlet from the Oregon-Washington line to the top of the hill near Flora, they broadcast their position at each mile marker on Channel 19 on their CB radios, according to Harold Jensen, a trucking company owner who has been running Buford Grade for 40 years. That strategy seems to be working. Tom Schuft, ODOT's Region 5 manager, says there hasn't been a single reported accident on Highway 3 since 1996, and only three accidents since 1993. Statistically, Highway 3 is one of the safest highways in the state.
Jensen has been arguing for years that the one trailer rule was unnecessary and counter-productive. He welcomes the opportunity to run longer trucks but sees the new rules, which are effective only from April 1 to Oct. 30, as only a first step to a more comprehensive solution. He would like to be able to run longer trucks year-round because farmers send most of their wheat to market during the winter. He also wishes ODOT would widen some of the sharpest curves on Buford grade to make it easier for truckers to stay on their own side of the road.
Jensen believes that double trailer rigs are actually safer in the winter than single trailer rigs because the second "pony" trailer is only half as long and carries only 10 tons instead of 35 tons. Even though the second trailer is smaller and carries less weight it has the same kind of brakes as the larger trailer. So working in tandem, pound-for-pound the two trailers has more overall braking power than a single 40-footer.
The good news is that ODOT seems to be open to suggestions and willing to sit down with community leaders and look for better solutions. That is an attitude that is all too scarce among government agencies these days. R.S.