Through the storm

    Jaclyn Tiedeman is among the thousands of Portland State commuters who, with the recent rainfall, have seen a drastic change in their drive to campus.

    An electrical pole landed in the middle of a road near her Garden Home residence Wednesday because of the rainy and windy weather. The fallen pole more than doubled Tiedeman’s commute time to PSU during rush hour.

    ”The delay made my trip more like 45 minutes, and that was at 4:30 in the afternoon,” Tiedeman said. “It was so bad trying to reach the freeway that I just took Barbur [Boulevard] instead.”

    Tiedeman’s alternate route is something that traffic experts across Oregon have been urging drivers to plan for during the winter season, with heavy traffic and delays expected throughout. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has issued its usual warnings about safe driving, though this year they have offered some extra cautions for inclement weather.

    ”I think that the most direct effect of the weather that has created closures has been mudslides and tree falls,” said Shawn Uhlman, Region 1 ODOT spokesman. “By and large, the traffic around Portland is heavy year-round, though about this time of year drivers begin to slow down. That’s a good thing, since lower speeds means fewer crashes, but drivers [should] also stay alert and keep their eyes on the road, no matter how fast or slow they’re going.”

    Region 1 of ODOT’s highway division is the northwest corner of Oregon, where most, if not all, PSU students live. Uhlman said he urges all drivers, especially those headed downtown, to plan ahead and to be aware of what’s happening on their routes.

    One big help to commuters is the free resource, a site funded by ODOT that reports current conditions statewide and gives notice of construction, closures, detours and weather delays. It offers live traffic cameras and is updated at least every hour, often more frequently during stormy conditions.

    ”It’s a great resource for the commute,” Uhlman said. “Not only is it good for the trip to class, but it’ll offer some forward vision for weekend trips and the like. I wish we had had this sort of thing when I was a student – of course, we never really thought ahead about our weekend trips anyhow.”

    Jyll Smith, community affairs representative for ODOT Region 2 (northern central Oregon), said that commuters could also dial 511 from any phone to connect to the ODOT weather conditions to find up-to-the-minute information on Oregon major highways.

    Commuting to schools isn’t the only danger for PSU students. ODOT is concerned that students making weekend ski trips are going to be unaware of the conditions and get stuck in lots of traffic, effectively ending a fun weekend trip.

    ”Highway 35, as you may know, was completely shut down,” Uhlman said. “It was practically destroyed by the storm weather and it’ll be a while before anyone should consider it a part of their commute.”
    Trips out to the coast might not be any safer, he said.

“A big accident on the way to the coast recently was on Sunday, when Highway 18 saw over 100 trees fall,” Smith said. “We’re now flagging people through a single lane, and it’s just nasty. We’re hoping to reopen this week, but nonetheless, drivers need to be careful.”

    Lolly Allsop, an 18-year-old PSU freshman, lives at the coast and goes home every weekend. She said the trip to the coast has been difficult, and the weather on the coast has been worse than it is in Portland.

    ”My family has a trampoline and it was literally picked up and carried by the wind from our backyard and near the front, where it smashed into my dad’s truck and pushed it 60 feet from where he had parked,” Allsop said. “The trip home and back has been a freaking mess since mid-October, and I’m starting to really hate wind.”

    Both Uhlman and Smith said that Oregon Highways 6 and 26, the major highways between Portland and the coast, have been experiencing closures due some of Oregon’s worst traffic issues – fallen leaves that clog drainage ditches and cause flooding.

    ”The blocked drainage systems are really precarious,” Uhlman said. “We do have patrols from highway maintenance all over the state set up and if they see a problem, they’ll get a crew out immediately to rectify it. The hard-to-identify blockage is a problem, so it’s really down to drivers to be safe in that situation.”

    ”Drivers are going to run into lots of downed trees and floods on the way to the coast,” Smith said. “The biggest caution I can offer drivers is to not attempt crossing big puddles. If it looks like a pooling of water is deep, then chances are good that it’ll be too deep to drive through.”

    Other cautions issued by ODOT include driving carefully during high winds, especially in high-profile vehicles such as RVs, lifted trucks and other top-heavy autos – particularly when driving across Portland’s bridges.

    ”With the weather conditions being what they are, please slow down and remember to keep plenty of space between your car and the one in front of you,” Uhlman said. “Stopping distance matters, as does removing distractions from view. Don’t be on the phone, don’t be eating a burger – it’s just not safe in Oregon’s nasty weather.”