- Associated Press - Thursday, October 6, 2016

MINAM, Ore. (AP) - The travel routes into Wallowa County can be treacherous, and the Minam Grade on Highway 82 east of Elgin is no exception.

As part of its effort to make the highway safer near the Union/Wallowa County line, the Oregon Department of Transportation will straighten the worst of the curves in 2018 at a projected cost of $4.5 million.

Ken Patterson, area manager of the ODOT office in La Grande, said the agency is working on a project to smooth out the 25-mph curve on the descent into Minam Canyon.

“It’s been a location of a number of accidents in the past,” Patterson said. “We got some money a couple years ago to build in 2018, and it’s currently under design.”

The state is working to get environmental clearances because of the amount of rock that will be removed to ease the curve.

The most recent project on the Minam Grade, five years ago, required the removal of 100,000 tons of rock. Patterson said crews will need to haul away closer to 400,000 tons during the 2018 work.

The permitting process through the Army Corps of Engineers and the Division of State Lands will take nine months to a year, and Patterson said he anticipates the project going out to bid in late 2017, with construction to start the following summer.

Included in the project are repairs for two areas where the shoulder on the cliff side of the road are washed out, Patterson said - one before the 25-mph curve and another near the bottom of the hill. Some of the rock removed from the uphill side of the highway will be used to buttress the crumbling shoulder.

Patterson said that in 1991, ODOT planned a project he called the “granddaddy of them all.”

“It was supposed to fix everything from the top to the bottom of the hill, but we couldn’t accomplish everything because there wasn’t enough funding,” Patterson said.

Patterson said money for the 2018 work is coming from two sources - one for highway safety projects and another earmarked for enhancing and modernizing highways.

A Sept. 19 crash near the 25-mph curve, 200 yards above the bottom of the canyon, is a reminder of how important this project is, Patterson said.

Gary Leonard Alford, 70, of Joseph, was driving a Dodge pickup truck down the Minam Grade toward Wallowa County when the truck veered off the road and rolled approximately 120 yards down the embankment. Alford was ejected from the truck and was alive when emergency responders and members of the Union County search and rescue ropes team reached him. He died on his way to a waiting Life Flight helicopter, Oregon State Police Sgt. Kyle Hove said.

Hove said equipment failure may have been a contributing factor in the crash. An investigation is ongoing.

Before that crash, the last fatal wreck on Minam Grade occurred not far from where Alford’s truck left the road.

In 2011, a loaded cattle truck driving downhill toward the Wallowa County line crashed into five cars. The driver was killed, as were several cattle. Brake failure was suspected at the time.

Nick Pallis of the Union County Sheriff’s Office was called to both wrecks.

“When you are coming off the top of the hill, it’s a steep grade and then there is a 90-degree corner where a lot of our problems occur,” Pallis said.

He said if a heavy vehicle or one towing a trailer doesn’t have good brakes, is going too fast or the driver isn’t in the correct gear, the grade can be dangerous.

“You come off that thing heavy loaded - if you aren’t in the right gear - and once the brakes heat up and fade, they are not going to stop you,” Pallis said.

Both Alford’s crash and the 2011 accident happened during the summer, in daylight when the highway was dry. But Pallis said snow and ice can make the corner even more treacherous.

He said after responding to the crash that killed Alford, he and another trooper considered ways the road could be improved.

“We were putting our heads together,” Pallis said. “How can it be safer? I honestly think they need to have higher poles or a double guardrail so vehicles can’t just hit it and jump right over it, but I’m not sure if it’s possible.”

Instead of a double guardrail Patterson said the outside of the corner will have earthen fill and the highway will be moved farther from the cliff. The 2018 project will reduce the severity of the 25-mph curve and allow for more sunlight to hit the road to melt snow and ice.

While both vehicles involved in the fatalities were traveling downhill, Patterson said people driving uphill have crashed as well.

“It’s a new phenomena,” Patterson said. “Vehicles have more horsepower and we’ve had several log and hay truck wrecks going uphill.”

___

Information from: The (La Grande) Observer, http://www.lagrandeobserver.com/

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide