As community and emergency service personnel prepare for the thousands of people expected during this summer's solar eclipse, ODOT is preparing for thousands more vehicles.
The solar eclipse will take place on Aug. 21, and Madras and Mitchell are in the path of totality, where viewing of the rare event will be longest and feature a full eclipse. Other nearby communities will offer great views as well, and the highways between them are expected to fill up as the event nears.
In anticipation of the traffic explosion, the Oregon Department of Transportation has spent the past six months planning how to deal with it, and the agency will refine that plan in the next month.
"The most noteworthy thing is we are going to keep the highways open and clear," said Peter Murphy, public information officer for ODOT Region 4. "We are not going to allow people to be doing anything that allows for dangerous activity on the highway. That means going off on the shoulder and staring at the sun. That is something that will not be allowed."
To prevent people from stopping their cars along the local highways, Murphy said that ODOT will mount an education campaign to continually remind people that such behavior is unsafe and won't be tolerated.
"There will be private activities taking place," he said. "There will be ample opportunity for people to do something other than stop on the highway and look at the activity."
Murphy characterized the education effort thus far as a loose-knit one that will get more specific during the next month. But ODOT does know that they plan to make use of media outlets and social media sites to push their message during the spring and early summer months. Then, as the event nears, ODOT will add signage to area highways to further spread the message.
"That won't happen until we are much closer," he said.
In addition to the temptation among drivers to pull off the road to watch the eclipse, ODOT is making plans to deal with the surging number of vehicles that will be on the road as people come to and travel through the area. While that is something they are used to dealing with, the eclipse will create a greater challenge than usual.
"We have had the usual busy holidays. On a Memorial Day Weekend, we could have as many as 60,000 additional people in the tri-county area," Murphy said. "We are talking on the order of 120,000 for this event."
Consequently, ODOT will take an "all hands on deck" approach and saturate the highways with incident responders. In addition, Oregon State Police will increase its presence on the roadways.
"It also calls upon the motorists to do what they need to do to make sure everybody stays safe on the highway," Murphy said. "Plan in advance."