Tens of thousands of visitors will be driving to Central Oregon for the eclipse later this month, but what they will do with their cars once they arrive remains an open question.

Officials are predicting that the full solar eclipse, which will occur during the morning of Aug. 21, will bring around 200,000 visitors to the tri-county area. While some of those visitors will be taking tour buses and other forms of transportation, business owners and officials in Madras, near the center of the eclipse’s path of totality, are bracing for plenty of cars, and a shortage of parking once they arrive.

“Madras just doesn’t have the parking, doesn’t have the roads,” said Sandy Forman, event coordinator for the Jefferson County Tourism Group.

Visitors hoping to simply pull off to the side of the highway to view the eclipse are being discouraged from doing that by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Jim Scholtes, the department’s district manager in Central Oregon, said ODOT will post 11 portable electronic signs along the region’s highways between Lava Butte and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, which will post messages warning drivers not to pull onto the shoulders for anything other than an emergency.

Scholtes said many stretches of U.S. Highways 97 and 20 have narrow shoulders, and getting out of cars alongside busy roads can be dangerous. Additionally, cars can easily start fires if tall, dry grasses touch hot parts of cars.

“Cheatgrass and catalytic converters don’t mix,” Scholtes said.

Drivers who make it into Madras without a specific plan could find parking a challenge.

Madras is hosting several large events, including ­Oregon SolarFest, which will feature live music that will be held at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, and SolarTown, a massive campground near the Madras Airport for better viewing. Forman said parking at the fairgrounds will be first come, first served, and the parking for SolarFest has not been set up yet.

“There’s not a lot of parking at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds,” she said. “That’s one of the big downfalls.”

Lysa Vattimo, solar eclipse plan facilitator for the city of Madras, said public and private groups have set up “day-tripper” parking for visitors planning to camp overnight in their cars, campers or tents, at ­SolarTown and in other locations around town.

The lots will have portable toilets and other basic amenities. The idea, Vattimo said, is to find a spot for visitors without firm plans, while encouraging them to arrive in Madras before Monday morning.

“You’re going to need some time to get here,” Vattimo said.

While there were still spaces available at SolarTown as of Friday, Vattimo said the approximately 6,000 spots are going quickly, and about 100 have been reserved each day since the last week of July. As of Friday, a daytripper parking space at SolarTown cost $45, though Forman said that rates may change as the eclipse gets closer. Current options are available on www.madras­eclipse.com.

To manage the parking shortage, SolarFest will run buses through routes in town that are closed to regular traffic. While the final routes are still awaiting approval from the city, Forman said there will be four lines, with buses on each line arriving every half hour.

“If people use the shuttles, I think we can really cut down on traffic,” Forman said.

Vattimo added that the city will host smaller events throughout the weekend in and near downtown Madras, where parking will likely be at a premium. For that reason, Vattimo said she was suggesting that businesses put “customers only” signs in front of their parking lots.

Several businesses, including Black Bear Diner, are going a step farther, and planning to hire short-term workers to watch their lots and make sure noncustomers aren’t parking in them.

However, other businesses are embracing the chaos.

Ron Hollingshead, manager of the Les Schwab Tire Center in Madras, on NE Plum Street, said he doesn’t have specific plans for his approximately 100-car parking area but will be staying open during normal hours that weekend.

Gary Boyd, co-owner of Great Earth Natural Foods, a cafe and market in downtown Madras, said he’ll put up signs saying that the store’s parking lot, which contains between 30 and 40 spots, is for customers only. But Boyd acknowledged he couldn’t do much to prevent visitors from parking there.

Boyd said most of his 14 employees can walk or bike to work if necessary, and the sheer number of people downtown could make it possible to serve up to five times as many customers as usual, mainly due to walk-ups.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop people from parking here,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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