When winter hits, ODOT maintenance crews make I-5 their first priority

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As winter approaches, John Vial, the ODOT District Manager, warms up his message, his mantra for the Rogue Valley: ‘Keeping the roads open is a partnership between ODOT and the public. We’re prepared for severe winter weather and we ask the public to do the same.’

With a winter maintenance goal to maintain a safe driving surface, ODOT maintenance crews throughout the Rogue Valley use many different tools and practices, including plowing, chemicals and sanding materials, to stay ahead of the winter weather.

Maintenance crews apply chemicals and sanding material on hills, curves, structures, and known trouble spots. Chemicals are used both as an anti-icer, before the storm to help prevent ice from forming on the road surface, and as a deicer, after the storm to help break the bond between ice and the road surface.ODOT maintenance crews shift their schedules to provide 24-hour coverage during the winter to keep employees fresh and ready to respond to any storm, day or night.

‘Our crews really gear up for winter,’ said Vial. ‘When a snowstorm hits the I-5 mountain passes, it’s an all-hands-on-deck event. Keeping I-5 open is our first priority.’

Siskiyou Pass

The Siskiyou Pass presents a unique challenge. When a storm hits Southern Oregon, the highest priority is the ten-mile stretch of Siskiyou Pass on Interstate 5, due to its importance as a regional freight route and its high traffic volumes.

ODOT maintains other mountain passes in Southern Oregon at lower levels of service than the Siskiyou Pass. The Sexton and Smith Passes on I-5 in Josephine County are equal priority to the Siskiyous, however those mountain passes are at significantly lower elevations and do not see the same frequency of winter storms.

The Siskiyou Pass is Oregon’s only mountain pass where all-weather or studded tires cannot be substituted for chains.

‘Because of the grades, the traffic and the experience of drivers on Siskiyou Pass, we go to a higher standard of traction devices,’ Vial said. ‘When we say chains are required on the Siskiyous, every vehicle has to chain up except vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive.’[Detailed information about conditional closures for Siskiyou Pass is available on page 8.]

Ill-equipped for winter travelStorm-related delays and short-term closures on the Siskiyou Pass are a common occurrence. However, motorists are often caught ill-equipped to travel over the I-5 mountain pass.

‘One of the biggest errors we see is people unprepared for winter conditions and a long wait in their car,’ Vial said. ‘We’ve seen people in shorts and tennis shoes. They have no gloves and no flashlight, but they’re bent over in the snow trying to chain up.’

In addition to pre-trip recommendations for winter travel, ODOT recommends motorists use these tips before traveling over the Siskiyou Pass:

  • Dress warmly. Leave the Hawaiian T-shirt at home. It may be warm in your car, but you’ll miss your winter coat should you need to chain up. Carry an extra blanket and spare clothing in your vehicle.
  • Fuel up. ODOT maintenance crews work hard to reopen I-5 during a winter storm, but it is not unusual for motorists to spend an hour or more waiting for the road to clear. Keep your tank full and ensure you’ll have plenty of gas to keep your car (and heater) running.
  • Stay equipped. At a minimum, carry tire chains, a working flashlight and drinking water. Make your wait more bearable by taking along a pair of gloves, a cell phone and some snacks.
  • Find relief. Don’t find yourself stuck in a snowstorm wishing you had ordered the small coffee instead. Nature calls, and loudly, when you’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Warmer facilities are abundant in Ashland, so make a final stop before heading south over Siskiyou Pass.
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