Thursday, February 19, 2015

Days numbered for Oregon’s ‘fantasy land’ speed limit policy?

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned on Wednesday amid calls for him to step aside due to questions about business dealings with his fiancee.

Kitzhaber said it was time for him to step away as questions about his administration have “reached the point of no return.”

The now former governor had been in office since 2011. He won re-election in November 2014, beating out then-state Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Republican. The Democratic governor also held the state’s top executive seat from 1995 to 2003.

Kitzhaber is perhaps most notable to truckers for vetoing multiple bills that sought to increase speed limits and reduce the speed differential between cars and trucks. In 1999 and 2001, bills sent to the governor’s desk authorized the Oregon Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit from 55 mph to 65 mph for trucks and from 65 mph to 70 mph for cars on rural stretches of Interstates 5 and 84.

A former emergency room doctor, Kitzhaber said on both occasions he was concerned the speed increase would encourage drivers to drive even faster, making the roads more dangerous.

“There is no question that increased speeds will compromise the safety of our rural interstate highway system, and the evidence is clear that highway fatalities will increase as speed increases,” he said following a 1999 veto.

The argument was also made during the time period that there were not enough trauma centers in rural Oregon to accommodate victims of the expected spike in speed-related wrecks.

Two years later, Kitzhaber said he might have signed the 2001 version if the Legislature had provided more money for additional state troopers to patrol roads.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Randy Miller, said following the veto that he was hopeful the next governor would not “live in a fantasy land” like Kitzhaber.

Fourteen years later, Oregon, California and Delaware remain the only states to prohibit trucks to drive faster than 55 mph. Oregon and Wisconsin are the only non-Northeastern states to keep car speeds below 70 mph.

It’s unclear if the sudden change in the governor’s suite will result in any state lawmakers acting this year to pursue the reduction or elimination of Oregon’s speed differential. But with only a handful of states continuing to limit trucks to speeds slower than other vehicles, change could soon be on the way.