Hwy. 20 gets back seat during hard winters

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

When the passes are blocked, Highway 20 will be among the last to be reopened.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has downgraded its maintenance priority for Highway 20 east of the Mountain House.

ODOT changed the rating from a C to a D from about milepost 52 to 71.5, near the junction of Highway 20 and Highway 126, spokesman Joe Harwood said. “It’s always been maintained at a D level. Last year, with the snowstorms, we just couldn’t keep up with everything.”

With higher traffic volumes on other roadways, such as highways 22 and 26, ODOT had to direct its attention to those.

The downgrade formalizes that viewpoint, he said. “People won’t notice much if we have a quiet, normal winter.”

With a winter like last year’s, “it just comes down to people and equipment,” Harwood said. The snow blower on Santiam Pass on Highway 22 broke down, and ODOT had to pull the Highway 20 snow blower up there. Then the blower on Highway 58 broke down, and the Highway 20 blower went there.

At the same time, some men on the ODOT crews worked 22 days straight last winter, he said.

ODOT closed the gate near milepost 52, about the location of the Mountain House.

“Highway 20 had always been rated equal to Santiam Pass at a C,” Harwood said, but the difference in traffic volumes is significant.

Highway 20 at milepost 51.5 has an average traffic volume of 1,100 vehicles per day while Santiam Pass has 11,000 per day.

“It basically comes down to how do you get people through the passes when storms come through?” Harwood said.

The change does not affect Highway 20 west of milepost 52 because of all the residents along that stretch of the highway, Harwood said

To put the rating into perspective, people might think that Interstate 5 would have an A rating, Harwood said, but it has several places where it’s rated at a service level B, even in Lane County.

Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist contacted ODOT for further information, concerned about what the new rating might mean.

Likewise, “I want to explore it a little bit more and bring it before the council,” Sweet Home Mayor Craig Fentiman said. It’s important “because it’s our only route over there.”

“As a practical matter, I don’t see this as any lack of commitment or further shift from Highway 20,” Nyquist said.

Among Nyquist’s priorities is keeping traffic moving through Linn County communities and Sweet Home on Highway 20. Nyquist, who is running for reelection this year, outlined a goal to focus on maintaining and improving Highway 20.

ODOT officials told him, this does not represent a lack of commitment to Highway 20 and keeping it open, he said. When it comes down to it, Highway 20 is one of three ways through the mountains, and they can only be opened one at a time. If all three passes are closed, Highway 20 is the least traveled, so it’s third on the list.

ODOT went to great lengths to say it’s not reducing its staff at its Sweet Home shop, he said. “Their priority list is just a structured version of what’s been going on.”

Nyquist is receptive to helping ODOT in an emergency situation, he said. The county had to go up and dig people out of Mehama last year.

“If we have to help them dig that pass open, we’ll do it,” he said.