What goes up, goes down again

Watch the signs on this stretch of U.S. 20 between Cairo Junction and Vale, as the state changes the limit again. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell) Watch the signs on this stretch of U.S. 20 between Cairo
Junction and Vale, as the state changes the limit again. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

Pat Caldwell
Malheur Enterprise

VALE – First the speed limit went up, but now it’s going back down on the stretch of U.S. 20 from Vale to Cairo Junction.

Paul Mather, Oregon Department of Transportation deputy director, announced last week that the state will drop the speed limit – from 65 mph to 55 – on the Vale-Cairo stretch and also on a span of U.S. Highway 97 in Central Oregon.

The new speed goes into effect in the next few weeks.

Mather said in a press release that crash data showed zones in the state where the speed limit needed to be lower.

The speed reduction, Mather said, will be in force for one year while the highway agency evaluates whether it should be permanent.

He cited an ODOT engineering and crash data study on the four stretches of roadway earmarked for a lower speed restriction.

The change reverses the action taken March 1, when a new state law that went into effect. That law increased the speed limits on interstate highways and 1,200 miles of non-interstate roadways, mainly in central and eastern Oregon, and including the Vale-Cairo stretch.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said he is not familiar with the crash data mentioned by ODOT but said, for the most part, the raised speed limit between Cairo Junction and Vale has been popular.

“I know the motoring public has really liked it,” Wolfe said.

Still, he said he is eager to see the numbers used by ODOT to validate the speed limit reduction.

“I can tell you between Vale and Cairo, since March, there hasn’t been very many crashes, so I am curious about how they are gathering their data,” Wolfe said.

While drivers tended to like the higher limit, Wolfe acknowledged that some residents who live along that stretch weren’t happy about it.

“It does cause problems, or challenges, for them to get out on the highway. Some folks have called in after the speed limit increase expressing their concerns. And so I get that, that is a legitimate concern,” Wolfe said.

Such complaints drew the attention of Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. Bentz, who spearheaded the speed change law during the 2015 legislative session, said he took the concerns of his constituents seriously.

Bentz said some people were concerned about vehicles that stopped on the highway to turn into nearby residences. Farm traffic also was an issue.

Bentz said during the recent annual Legislative Days, he contacted ODOT officials about the concerns.

“I told them life is too precious, let’s not wait,” he said.

Bentz said the speed limit boost was never intended for local-traffic roads like the one between Cairo Junction and Vale. Instead, the hike was designed for remote highways between such places as Bend and Burns.

Wolfe pointed out that the speed limit change between Vale and Cairo Junction shouldn’t have a big impact for travelers.

“I know people like going faster but, you know, increasing the speed limit by 10 mph on a 14-mile stretch of road doesn’t really save you that much time. You are looking at less than two minutes, I’d guess,” he said.