Central Oregon Braces for the Eclipse

Central Oregon Solar Eclipse 2017

By the time the moon fully obscures the sun, at around 10:20 a.m. Aug. 21, Central Oregon’s population is widely expected to double. And with many of the visitors driving cars and RVs to the region, Central Oregon’s highway system may be stretched to capacity.

“It’s like if you took three Rose Bowls and set them in Central Oregon,” said Peter Murphy, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Without knowing how many people will attempt to make an impromptu trip to Central Oregon from the Willamette Valley, the department isn’t providing formal projections on how many people it expects on the roads in the region (although the Rose Bowl can seat 92,542).

Anecdotally, however, event planners are bracing for multi-hour delays throughout the region. Sandy Forman, event coordinator for Jefferson County Tourism Group, which is putting on the Oregon SolarFest in Madras, said the drive from Bend to Madras — which normally takes a little under an hour — could take more than eight hours during the lead-up to the eclipse.

“We tell everyone that they will need to be here Sunday night,” Forman said.

Murphy said traffic is likely to ramp up on Thursday, Aug. 17, and stay heavy from Friday through Tuesday, the day after the eclipse.

In response, Murphy said ODOT is planning to station two-person teams at 22 different locations around Central Oregon, including key intersections along U.S. highways 20, 26 and 97, to keep an eye on the situation and keep traffic moving in case of minor accidents or medical emergencies.

“Our responsibility as a transportation department is to keep the highways open,” Murphy said.

While Bend is outside the narrow sliver of the state that will see the moon entirely eclipse the sun, it will still be used by visitors as a staging area.

Murphy said the intersection at U.S. Highway 97 and Cooley Road, which can take several traffic-light cycles to clear during rush hour, may back up to NE Butler Market Road, three miles to the south, during the worst of the eclipse traffic.

However, Madras and Prineville, nearer to the eclipse’s path of totality and with no bypasses for traffic on the highways, will likely bear the brunt of the region’s traffic.

Michael Ryan, emergency manager for the Crook County Sheriff’s Office, said there are a number of permitted events on private land around Prineville, ranging from Symbiosis: Oregon Eclipse, which will bring an estimated 35,000 people to Big Summit Prairie east of Prineville, to smaller events like Moonshadow Festival at Winedown Ranch. While Ryan said many of the smaller events are not yet sold out, making the total number of cars harder to predict, he added that response times for fire trucks and other emergency services will be longer than normal.

“Our highway system in Central Oregon is set up for the 220,000 people who live here and the transient traffic through the region,” Ryan said. “If we double our traffic, it’s fair to say the system is going to show (its flaws).”

Lysa Vattimo, solar eclipse plan facilitator for the city of Madras, said she’s advising residents to get gas, buy groceries and run other errands a week in advance of the phenomenon, as trips across town will likely take around three times longer than usual.

Parking near downtown Madras will likely be a problem as well. Heidi Wood, who owns the Sears Hometown store on SE Fifth Street, said she is so concerned about visitors parking in the store’s parking lot, which it shares with nearby Erikson’s Thriftway, that she is planning to hire temporary workers to keep visitors out of the lot.

“It’s not like people coming for the eclipse are looking to buy appliances,” Wood said.

To help combat the traffic, Vattimo said Madras will close C Street, which turns into SW Canyon Road outside of downtown, to through traffic, allowing emergency services to get around the city more easily. The city may close other streets to all traffic other than ambulances in case of a medical emergency, according to Vattimo.

Forman added that Oregon SolarFest will be running buses to the Jefferson County Campgrounds and various locations around Madras along C Street as well. Visitors can pay $5 for a single-day ticket on the buses, or $15 for a weekend pass.

Outside of Madras, Murphy said ODOT will be updating Tripcheck.com, as well as the department’s Facebook and Twitter pages, with live updates about the traffic for visitors who might be looking to looking to take a day-trip over from Portland or Salem. The department will also have automated signs set up along Central Oregon’s highways to give instructions in case of an emergency.

Still, Murphy advised people planning to travel long distances to bring plenty of water and food, and plan stops for gas or restroom breaks well in advance. Given the possibility of starting a brush fire, he said visitors should avoid pulling off to the side of the road if possible.

“If you have a car full of kids, you need to know where to go,” Murphy said