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From another direction

idaho RANDY

CLARIFICATION: The current megaload shipment across Oregon and Idaho originated in Portland, not in Asia. Other megaload shipments sent across Idaho earlier this year did originate in Asia.

Now that Idaho’s Highway 12 seems to have been closed off to megaload traffic, shipments have begun moving in other directions. And that changes the nature of the megaload debate.

Highway 12 was an unusual case. For a U.S. highway, that mountainous riverside stretch is challenging for even drivers of standard passenger cars, and highly challenging for drivers of semis and the like. The idea of an enormous 900,000­pound megaload, carrying huge pieces of equipment shipped from Asia and destined for the tar fields of Alberta traveling that road seemed, simply, like madness. As the joke would have it: What could go wrong? Well, plenty.

But now we have new routes for the megaloads, and they bring different kinds of questions.

Permits under review at the Idaho Transportation Department would allow for megaloads to run from Lewiston up Highway 95 to its intersection with I­90, on which it would run deep into Montana. Assuming the bridge issue can be finessed (the loads are so large they cannot fit underneath bridges), that might be a better alternative, since that stretch of U.S. 95 is now a better road than it once was for larger vehicles, and interstates are built with the idea of handling large loads.

Somewhere in between that and U.S. 12 is the peculiar shipment now underway, slowly, slowly, from the Port of Unatilla in eastern Oregon, to the Idaho border near Homedale, around Mountain Home, over to Arco, north to Salmon, and over the Lost Trail Pass on U.S. 93 into Montana.

Those of us who have driven these roads know them mostly – the bulk of their miles – as long, flat and straight. The desert countryside on much of the way can be spectacular, but most of the route is easy driving and relatively low risk. In most places drivers may be able to make their way around the megaload, something impractical almost anywhere along Highway 12. There are some exceptions, such as the road leading up to Lost Trail Pass and the stretch north of Mountain Home leading up into the Camas Prairie. These still are easier drives than Highway 12.

Other questions still remain, though, aside from the safety factor. One is the wear on the road.

Megaloads do come with special fees and conditions reflecting their unusual size, but how much do we really know about their wear on the road? How well have emergency and safety considerations really be thought through?

There’s one other, too, people in the region ought to consider.

One of the key principles about international trade long has been the idea that you should always try to export finished products rather than raw goods, so you can employ your own people locally in the manufacture, rather than shipping those jobs overseas. Here, the immense pieces of equipment being sent to the oil fields are being fully manufactured on the other side of the Pacific.

Might we not want to set tax and regulatory incentives to encourage their manufacture on this continent? The whole shipment issue would be moot if the production of the equipment was located closer to the oil fields, and it might mean more good­paying jobs as well.

That idea hasn’t come up for consideration much. But when legislatures and Congress resume their work in January, it ought to be something to think about.

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