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Oregon state Senators want to raise highway speed limit

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“Oregon is the odd one out when it comes to the nation’s speed limits. By modernizing our speed limit we can increase the flow of traffic, lower commute times and fast track commerce through the state.”
— Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro)

Saying that Oregon’s speed limit is “behind the times,” state Senators Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro) and Jason Atkinson (R-Central Point) are working to raise speeds limits on highways and interstates to 75 miles per hour. The senators say they’ll look to amend House Bill 3150, the “neighborhood greenway bill” which was introduced to lower speed limits on certain residential streets by five miles per hour (down to 20 mph).

HB 3150 passed the House back in March by a vote of 45-14.

In a statement released today, Sen. Atkinson said,

“Oregon is the only state west of the Mississippi with highway and interstate speed limits less than 70 miles per hour. People have to play by different rules along I-5 and in rural areas when they travel from state to state. Business and commerce suffer as a result.”

Atkinson and Starr say they plan to amend HB 3150 to include a 75 mph speed limit on highways and interstates (it’s currently 65) for cars and 60 mph for commercial vehicles and semis (up from 55 mph).

For Starr, the higher speed is a matter of keeping up with the times: “By modernizing our speed limit we can increase the flow of traffic, lower commute times and fast track commerce through the state.”

The Oregonian reported yesterday that Atkinson and Starr have their work cut out for them in getting this passed.

Governor Kitzhaber has vetoed bills to raise the speed limit when it came before him in past sessions and he remains opposed to the idea. Gail Actherman, Chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC, which sets policy for ODOT) also had some very direct words about the idea in The Oregonian:

“Frankly, voting to raise the speed limit is voting to kill people and it is voting to maim people for life.”

In 2004, the state pulled together an Oregon Speed Zone Review Panel to draft a report to the OTC reviewing a speed limit increase to 70 mph. The panel was unanimous in their decision to retain the existing 65 mph limit, primarily due to safety concerns. “The Panel believes that the safety and environmental benefits for keeping the 65 mph speed limit outweigh the travel time benefits of a 70 mph speed limit.”

In 2004, public comments received by the panel showed Oregonians were nearly evenly split for/against the idea. (Download the report here, PDF).

Looking at ODOT’s traffic crash data, “driving too fast for conditions” is listed as one of the “most common driver errors” year after every year. Speeding — especially on rural highways — consistently amounts for about half of all fatal and serious injury crashes in Oregon annually.

When I asked ODOT’s Traffic Safety Division Manager Troy Costales. He said the biggest problem he faces is that he basic speed law on rural highways (which have “the worst safety record”) isn’t strong enough.

It’s not yet clear how this proposed amendment might impact HB 3150. Also, if it’s clear that the Governor and the OTC are against higher speed limits, are these two legislators simply trying to drop this in as a poison pill to kill HB 3150? We hope to find out more next week.

As it stands (without the 75 mph speed limit provision), HB 3150 is awaiting a work session and possible vote in the Senate Business, Transportation and Economic Development Committee.

Stay tuned for developments.

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