If you’re entertaining the idea of popping in your car really early Monday and racing down to Oregon in time for the eclipse, think again.
You’re not the only person thinking that most everybody else will have heeded the dire traffic warnings from both Oregon and Washington, and that you and the other spontaneous types will have the roads to yourselves.
And you aren’t the only person who’s pored over maps looking for those little-known, lightly traveled alternate routes on the eastern side of both states.
“If you try to come down Monday, no matter how early you leave, you’re already too late,” said Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Dave Thompson, whose agency has been planning for eclipse traffic for more than a year.
“Nobody believes they will face the level of traffic we are expecting,” he said. “Imagine trying to get to a major NFL playoff game and planning to arrive five minutes before it starts. Do you think you are going to have a good parking experience and make the kickoff?”
In trying to anticipate what people will do as they head toward the first total eclipse of the sun in the United States since 1979, Thompson and his colleagues have examined “virtually every highway in Eastern Washington and most are narrow, two-lane, curving rural roads” which will not get you into the eclipse’s path with any speed or ease, he said.
And even if you were able to get down into, say, Salem or Madras where large festivals and events are planned, you would likely not be able to get off the freeway, Thompson said.
“What happens when you get into Salem and run into a bottleneck of people trying to get off the highway and onto a city street,” Thompson said. “We expect the backups to stretch back onto the highway.”
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which is staging a huge event at the state fairgrounds in Salem, is estimating that it will take drivers several hours to get from the highway to the fairgrounds a few miles away, he said.
Dave House, another Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman, said the state is expecting to get more traffic than it’s ever had its history. And that’s just with the 1 million people they know are coming because they’ve counted the hotel rooms and campsites that have been booked for months, and in some cases years in advance.
There’s no way for anyone to fully anticipate all the visitors who will be staying with friends or trying to wing it, House said.
“This is unprecedented,” Thompson said. “So any of your readers coming south need to come early, and I mean days early, not hours, and be prepared to stay put.”
No matter what time you leave, transportation officials in both states urge you to have a printed, hard copy of a map with you.
“You never know when you might lose your GPS signal,” said Washington State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Barbara LaBoe.
“We think there will be some people who will try different routes and we’re concerned GPS will start sending people off to routes that don’t have gas stations or are logging roads. We’re asking people to bring extra water, extra food, medications, and not to let the gas tank get empty,” LaBoe said. “Think about stocking your car like you’re going over a mountain pass in winter.”
Officials with both transportation agencies said that although they know it will happen, they are pleading with people to not pull over to the side of the road as the eclipse approaches.
Thompson said some of the worst-case scenarios his agency have anticipated include people pulling over into a dry field to see the eclipse and accidentally setting the field on fire.
“Now you’re in the middle of a wildfire that you started,” he said.
Another potential and likely scenario is a freeway with some people looking up at the sky as they drive, others pulling over as the eclipse approaches, and others trying to take advantage of the perceived open lanes by trying to race ahead of the sky gawkers.
“This is an exciting event,” said LaBoe, “but please, please have a place to park and be there before it starts.”
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