Posted tagged ‘Laurel Hill’

U.S. 26 Construction Begins

June 30, 2014
Vestige of better days: ferns and moss are gradually erasing the long-abandoned original loop highway on Laurel Hill

Vestige of better days: ferns and most are gradually erasing the long-abandoned original loop highway on Laurel Hill

Over the past few years, I’ve posted a series of articles in this blog challenging the Oregon Department of Transportation “safety” projects for U.S. 26 in the Mount Hood area. Most of the projects to date have been highway widening cloaked as “safety”, and ODOT has been incrementally widening the highway to five lanes from west of Wemme through Rhododendron over the past decade.

Today, they’ve set their sights on the Laurel Hill section of the highway, where extensive sections of the mountainside will soon be blasted away, ostensibly to prevent rocks from falling on the highway. But as always, the highway “will be widened for safety”.

The big road cut in the center of this Google Earth view will get even bigger with the latest ODOT project

The big road cut in the center of this Google Earth view will get even bigger with the latest ODOT project

The current batch of projects aren’t as bad as they might have been: working from a solid “F” grade as originally rolled out, they’ve moved somewhere into the “D-” range. The project is still a costly dud to taxpayers, approaching $40 million and counting. But the extent of new lanes has been scaled back somewhat and the center median has also been shortened on the west end from what was originally conceived.

Sadly, ODOT can do better — and has, especially in the Columbia River Gorge, where their excellent I-84 Strategy guides design. But on Mount Hood the focus has been on moving traffic, with impacts on the scenic character of Oregon’s tallest peak as an afterthought.

This slope across from the Mirror Lake trailhead will be blasted away to allow for road widening

This slope across from the Mirror Lake trailhead will be blasted away to allow for road widening

For Mount Hood travelers, it’s going to be a radical change. Not only will the physical highway scars on Laurel Hill grow substantially, the road itself will be more freeway-like, thanks to a concrete center median that will stretch four miles from the Kiwanis Camp junction at the bottom of the hill to Government Camp.

While the new median will physically prevent the relatively rare head-on crashes that can occur in winter conditions (when heavy ski traffic is present), ODOT has no shown plans to actually lower the speed limit in this stretch of highly. This would be the most cost-effective way to prevent crashes, and was recommended as a priority by their own safety consultants, but couldn’t compete with the road widening agenda.

You Can’t Get There from Here

The most obvious impact of the new median will be visual. ODOT has been vague about just how ugly the median will be. There are many examples across the country where state highway departments have constructed reasonably attractive median barriers in scenic corridors. Yet, while early ODOT materials on the project suggested a similar approach at Mount Hood, the agency seems to be retreating to a standard Jersey barricade, like you might find on the Banfield Freeway.

The Laurel Hill Chute historic site will be a lot harder to reach for westbound tourists

The Laurel Hill Chute historic site will be a lot harder to reach for westbound tourists

The "improved" highway will allow fewer visitors to take in this mind-boggling view of the "chute" used by Oregon Trail pioneers to descend Laurel Hill

The “improved” highway will allow fewer visitors to take in this mind-boggling view of the “chute” used by Oregon Trail pioneers to descend Laurel Hill


 

Another impact from the medians that will affect hikers is access to the popular Mirror Lake trailhead and Laurel Hill Chute trail. Once the median is in place, hikers will have to approach from the west to reach these trails, which means that if you are approaching from Government Camp, you would need to drive four miles down Laurel Hill to the Kiwanis junction, turn around and retrace your route to Laurel Hill or Mirror Lake.

Likewise, the hordes of Portlander who fill the Mirror Lake trailhead, in particular, will need to drive to Government Camp or Ski Bowl to make their return trip, as turning west from the trailhead will no longer be possible.

This is Going to Take Awhile

This latest phase of the U.S. 26 widening project begins this summer, and, according to ODOT, will continue through 2016 in the months of April-October each year! ODOT warns travelers that intermittent traffic closures during these construction windows will last 20 minutes and can occur at any time when construction is underway — longer when blasting occurring.

Here’s a rundown of the details from ODOT:

• Around-the-clock closure to one lane in each direction until October 31, 2015
• Blasting will require up to 1-hour closures of U.S. 26 three days a week Monday through Thursday between 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
• Intermittent traffic stops lasting 20-minutes anytime
• Increased truck traffic on U.S. 26
• Intermittent single lane closures and flagging for other work
• No construction on holidays and Sundays
• No construction from November to March of each year. During this time all existing lanes will re-open

If that last point leaves no doubt, this project continues spend a lot of general fund dollars on ski traffic — and the reckless driving associated with ski traffic – during winter weekends.

Finding a New Vision for US 26

The “good” news (ironically) is that ODOT is rapidly running out of highway funding. This reality is statewide, thanks to the declining value of a cents-per-gallon gas tax losing ground to inflation and the Oregon Legislature increasingly bonding away future gas taxes to pay today’s bills. It’s a sad state of affairs for transportation in Oregon, but it might also provide a needed opportunity for ODOT to develop a more holistic vision for the Mount Hood corridor.

The agency knows how to do this: ODOT’s I-84 Strategy for the Columbia Gorge guides project design in the National Scenic Area and is a perfect approach for coming up with a more enlightened, sustainable vision for the Mount Hood corridor, as well.

ODOT's excellent I-84 Strategy is a perfect blueprint for a new U.S. 26 vision on Mount Hood

ODOT’s excellent I-84 Strategy is a perfect blueprint for a new U.S. 26 vision on Mount Hood

One very encouraging development is the Mount Hood Multimodal Plan, reported on here in an earlier article. While past efforts to actually manage the ski traffic that drives so many bad highway design decisions in the corridor haven’t gone anywhere, the new plan seems to have legs. That’s good news for Mount Hood at a time when good news is in short supply.
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For more information about the U.S. 26 project and ODOT:

U.S. 26 Website

I-84 Strategy(PDF)

Previous WyEast Blog articles on the U.S. 26 project:

Highway 26 Widening – Part One

Highway 26 Widening – Part Two

Highway 26: Last Chance to Weigh in!

Highway 26 Postscript… and Requium?

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 1

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 2

Highway 26: Last Chance to weigh in!

March 24, 2013
Mount Hood from the Mirror Lake Trail

Mount Hood from the Mirror Lake Trail

After several years of planning, the proposed safety projects on the Mount Hood Highway (Highway 26) are nearly a done deal, and have entered a final round of public review and comment — with comments due April 7th!

The project has been the subject of several articles on this blog, and thankfully, has been scaled-back somewhat from the original, old school “widen for safety” retread of 1950s highway mentality that dominated earlier phases in the corridor. That said, the project has simply moved from a failed grade to something like a C-minus, at best. It needs your input to be more than an eyesore for the traveling public.

Google Earth perspective on the US26 Laurel Hill Grade

Google Earth perspective on the US26 Laurel Hill Grade

The highway section in question is the Laurel Hill grade, west of Government Camp. Ever since Oregon Trial pioneers lowered their covered wagons down the infamous talus “chute” on Laurel Hill, this spot has vexed road designers.

The current highway alignment is no exception: despite blasting away a good portion of Laurel Hill, the road is still a steep, curving, often treacherous route. The need for safety improvements is on the mark, but it’s unclear if the solutions proposed by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) will deliver, as some of the best (and least expensive) recommendations from their own safety study were dropped from the project at the very start.

It’s not to late to add some of these more practical, potentially more effective solutions to the project, even if the highway engineers seem determined to widen the road and chip away more of Laurel Hill as their preferred solution. More on how you can weigh in at the conclusion of this article.

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(click here for a larger map in a new window)

But first, an overview of the ODOT final proposal is in order, starting with kudos to the agency (yes, you read that right!) for greatly improving their public involvement. Having reviewed a lot of ODOT projects over the years, I’m impressed with the effort the agency has made in this final round of outreach for Highway 26.

Though in-person open houses have continued to be limited to the Welches area (despite the fact that the vast majority of highway users — and taxpayers — live in the metro area), the web tools provided by ODOT in this round of public review are especially well done, and arguably a better format for most citizens than traditional open houses.

The Project

The following are “before-and-after” digital renderings of the major elements of the Highway 26 safety project. A link to the ODOT virtual open house is included at the end of this article, and includes these renderings at much larger scale.

The number shown on each pair of images corresponds to the map shown above (or you can click here to open a large version of the map in a new window or tab). The tour starts from the west, at the base of the Laurel Hill grade, and proceeds east toward Government Camp.

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The project begins at the west (lower) end of the Laurel Hill grade. A number of small changes are proposed along this approach, but the most notable is proposal to cut back the cliff at the “Map Curve”, the ODOT name for the wide bend in the highway where Mount Hood first looms into view — a very popular, if somewhat harrowing pullout for visitors.

The rendering above shows what the scaled-back cliff at the Map Curve would look like from the west, as you pass the familiar road cut and rock outcrop known by ODOT as “Silent Rock. As the renderings show, the scaled-back cliff would be a major undertaking. The purpose of this element of the project is to prevent rocks from falling on the highway. According to ODOT, this is safety concern in the area, and the cause of numerous crashes over the years.

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This is another before-and-after rendering of the scaled-back cliff, this time looking west from near the Map Curve toward the base of Laurel Hill. This view shows another proposed feature: a continuous concrete median, extending from just below the Map Curve to just above the Mirror Lake trailhead, for a total of about 2.5 miles.

The ODOT plans for the median call for an “aesthetic” concrete that complements natural material found in the area. The capped concrete median (installed near Bennett Pass) pictured in public outreach materials would, indeed, be a significant improvement over a standard barricade:

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Unfortunately, the design pictured in the ODOT before-and-after renderings, omit the faux cap, greatly diminishing the “aesthetic” qualities of the proposed barriers.

Other highway departments around the country are experimenting with similar “context sensitive” alternatives for concrete medians in natural or scenic environments, such as this example from CalTrans, installed in the San Luis Obispo area:

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The cost of aesthetic medians will be a major driver in the ODOT final decision, but the longevity of the medians (30-40 years?) call for getting it right the first time. ODOT should be installing something special that truly enhances the Mount Hood Highway experience, not just something “less worse” than a standard freeway barricade.

The next rendering (below) is from the Map Curve, this time looking east toward Mount Hood. This view also shows the proposed median as well as the scaled-back cliff.

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It’s hard to argue with the need to reduce hazardous rock fall in the Map Curve area, except to imagine a parallel universe where foresighted engineers had tunneled through Laurel Hill when the modern highway was originally built..!

But alas, the current alignment is our reality, and based on the materials provided by ODOT, the scaled-back cliff is another least-worst solution for the problem. The engineers are proposing a steeper-than-standard cliff face when completed, but with a larger catchment at the base, thus (hopefully) reducing the number of rocks that make it to the roadway while also minimizing the amount of road widening to accommodate the catchment.

The towering road cut at the Highway 26 “Map Curve” will get taller and much longer under the ODOT safety proposal (photo: ODOT)

The towering road cut at the Highway 26 “Map Curve” will get taller and much longer under the ODOT safety proposal (photo: ODOT)

ODOT surveyed the existing cliff with the aid of a helicopter, and the scope of this element of the project is truly daunting: as shown in the image above, the man-made cliff is already very large, and making an even taller cut will be a tricky endeavor, indeed.

This element of the project appears to already be a done deal, so the best we can hope for is that the resulting scars on the landscape aren’t any more jarring than what can already be seen (and heard) from nearby recreation trails. Keep your fingers crossed.

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The next rendering (above) is from a point just beyond the Map Curve, looking back at the curve and the adjacent runaway truck ramp (a feature that dates back to the late 1970s). As with the previous views, the changes here include the scaled-back cliff section and continuous concrete median.

Next up is a before-and-after view toward the mountain from high saddle on Laurel Hill where the highway crosses from the south face to the north side of the ridge. This spot is familiar to travelers as the site of the historic Laurel Hill Chute interpretive sign and trail. The rendering shows the proposed median, road widening to 4-lanes and another substantially scaled-back cliff section to address reported rock fall hazards.

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Notably absent from this rendering is a new pullout and trailhead for the historic Laurel Hill Chute site, hopefully just an oversight by the artists. ODOT has not suggested in the written materials for the project that trail access at this point will be eliminated. This is a detail worth commenting on if visiting this fascinating remnant of the original Oregon Trail is one of your family traditions.

The next before-and-after rendering (below) is from the same section of road, also looking east, but from the bottom of an embankment on the opposite side of the highway, where the Pioneer Bridge Trail parallels the road. Here, a structural retaining wall is proposed to provide the additional roadway width needed to widen the highway to four lanes and add the center median. Kudos to ODOT for a context-sensitive solution with this retaining wall: the rendering suggests it will be constructed with faux-stone facing, thus lessening the visual blight for hikers, cyclists and equestrians using the trail, if not the overwhelming noise from highway traffic.

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The proposed widening to 4 lanes in this section is significantly scaled back from earlier incarnations of the Laurel Hill safety project. This is a welcome change to the design, as ODOT’s own safety data shows only occasional spikes in traffic volumes — on holidays and peak summer and winter weekends — that road widening would do little to resolve. Most of the time, traffic volumes on Highway 26 are far below built capacity, and the few (and arguably avoidable) traffic jams that occur don’t warrant costly widening projects.

The final before-and-after view is from opposite the Mirror Lake trailhead, looking west (downhill) toward Laurel Hill. Here, the rendering shows another proposal to cut back an existing slope to address rock fall and sight distance concerns, the upper extent of the proposed median and another section of highway proposed to be widened to 4 lanes.

The Mirror Lake trailhead is unquestionably dangerous, thanks to very heavy use and its location on a relatively steep curve. The proposed median will should eliminate the possibility of crossover crashes throughout its proposed 2.5 mile extent, but is especially warranted at this location.

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However, the median will also prevent left turns in and out of the Mirror Lake trailhead, forcing hikers approaching from Portland to continue west to Government Camp to make their return trip. With the median terminating just east of the trailhead, visitors will be tempted to make a U-turn, a potential hazard ODOT has not addressed in the proposal.

Likewise, visitors coming to Mirror Lake from Government Camp will have to drive 3.5 miles to the bottom of Laurel Hill, and presumably turn around at the Kiwanis Camp junction in order reach the trailhead.

Civil disobedience ensued in 2010 when ODOT abruptly closed the Mirror Lake trailhead to winter parking

Civil disobedience ensued in 2010 when ODOT abruptly closed the Mirror Lake trailhead to winter parking

These changes at Mirror Lake will be unwelcome news to hikers who have already chafed at the recent winter closure of the trailhead by ODOT. In the end, it’s probably a “least worst” trade-off in the interest of traffic safety, but ODOT could be doing much more to make this element a real step forward for Mirror Lake visitors.

For example, it’s hard to tell from the “after” rendering, but the Mirror Lake trailhead appears unchanged: this is a missed opportunity, as ODOT will spend tens of millions on the overall Laurel Hill safety project, and a more carefully and aesthetically designed parking area here, separated from the highway traffic, could further improve traffic safety.

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ODOT has a lot of recent experience in this area from their excellent trailhead parking improvements in the Columbia River Gorge, including Angels Rest, Horsetail Falls and Yeon State Park. These relatively new designs provide a perfect template for the Mount Hood Highway, and follow the aesthetic lead ODOT has already taken in recent years with context sensitive designs for the Multorpor overcrossing and Government Camp signage, for example.

Getting it right the first time!

The current round of projects coming to the Mount Hood Highway are the most recent in a string stretching back decades, and clearly will not be the last. Though the final designs ODOT is proposing in the interest of “safety” are less destructive than some of the initial concepts, there are still a number of missed opportunities and questionable “solutions” on the table.

1920s motorists enjoying the view from a kinder, gentler Mount Hood Highway in 1931

1920s motorists enjoying the view from a kinder, gentler Mount Hood Highway in 1931

It’s probably too late to turn back some of the more questionable elements, but there’s still time to advocate where opportunities have been missed. Here’s a rundown of some additions that could make this project more successful. Consider adding these to your own comments!

1. Retain the Laurel Hill Chute Trailhead: this important historic site has been a family stopping point for generations, and must not be lost to road widening. ODOT should propose an improved pullout for visitors at the current trailhead.

2. Make the Mirror Lake Trailhead a showpiece: ODOT should follow its own lead with new trailheads built in the Gorge, and make this trailhead more than just a dusty highway pull-off. Mirror Lake is the “gateway” trail for many first-time visitors to the mountain and the pullout and trailhead ought to be designed accordingly.

3. Use architecturally enhanced medians: the proposed exposed aggregate medians are a tiny step in the right direction, but this element of the project will be the most visible to the traveling public. Let’s aim higher with architecturally themed medians that coordinate with recent improvements to the Government Camp streetscape — and at a minimum, the capped design used at Bennett Pass.

4. Look for storm water solutions to protect Camp Creek: the project is silent about the ongoing effects of polluted Highway 26 runoff on adjacent Camp Creek, a salmon and steelhead-bearing stream. ODOT will be putting down an immense amount of asphalt and new road fill with this project, so will they also improve storm water capture in the process?

5. Don’t wait to install variable speed signs & photo radar: this is one of the least expensive solutions in ODOT’s own safety audit, but moved to the back of the line from the very start. Why wait? Install variable speed limit signs and photo radar now for use during hazardous conditions.

6. Extend the Highway 26 Safety Corridor: ODOT bravely reduced the posted speed limit to 45 MPH from Wildwood to Rhododendron in an earlier phase of the Highway 26 safety campaign. Now it’s time to extend this safety corridor to Timberline Road. It’s an inexpensive, extremely effective safety solution whose time as come — plus, reduced speeds greatly reduce noise impacts for those living along the corridor and recreating on nearby public lands, a dual benefit.

7. Develop a long-term strategy for the resorts: the dirty little secret in ODOT’s 15-year campaign to address safety in the Mount Hood corridor is that almost all of the crashes occur in winter, on a few weekends when the roads are icy. It’s not rocket science to deduce that most of this is due to the huge spikes in traffic coming from the three major ski resorts on the mountain. It’s time to manage winter resort traffic comprehensively, and give skiers real alternatives to driving to the mountain in adverse conditions (more on that in a future article…)

In the long term, the most sustainable solution for the highway is to manage it as a scenic parkway, and put an end to the constant, incremental creep toward becoming an unmanageable, unlivable urban freeway sprawling over the shoulder of iconic Mount Hood (…more on that in a future article, as well…)

Go ahead, weigh in… by April 7th!

ODOT has done a very good job assembling a “virtual open house”, so if you care about Mount Hood and want to weigh in on their plans, it really couldn’t be easier. Simply go to their project website and explore:

Highway 26 Virtual Open House

Remember, comments are due by April 7th! While it’s true that many of the project elements are likely a done deal, you can still have an impact by making your concerns known. Projects like this have a sizable “contingency” budget set aside for this very reason, and now is the time to guide how those funds (your tax dollars) are spent!

The original Laurel Hill grade in the 1920s, shortly after the Mount Hood Highway opened

The original Laurel Hill grade in the 1920s, shortly after the Mount Hood Highway opened


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For more background on this proposal, you can also read these previous WyEast Blog articles on the topic:

Highway 26 Widening: Part 1

Highway 26 Widening: Part 2

Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

Tollgate Maples… and the Highway

The Tollgate Maples… and the Highway

July 17, 2011

The two remaining Tollgate maples

Last week, the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) jointly announced that the main trunk of one of two remaining Barlow Road Tollgate heritage maple trees would be coming down soon:

“A 130-year-old bigleaf maple, which marks the spot of the western-most tollgate of the historic Barlow Road, has substantial decay and poses a hazard to travelers on U.S. Highway 26 (Mt. Hood Highway). The tree is planned to be felled within the next three weeks.”

(download the press release here)

On its face, the decision is both reasonable and expected. The maples were planted in the 1880s by tollgate keeper Daniel Parker, and have lived the typical lifespan of our native bigleaf maple. A third maple apparently survived until the mid-1990s, and along with the tree that will soon be removed, framed the old tollhouse that once stood on the north side of the tollgate (where the highway is located, now).

The large trunk on the right will be removed, but the three smaller trunks on the left will be spared

The good news is that the tree will live on, through suckers that have grown to become three separate trunks – a typical form for bigleaf maples. From the press release:

“The old bigleaf maple to be felled has several stems: a main stem, with a diameter of 25 inches, and three smaller 4- to 6-inch diameter stems growing from the base of the trunk. These three smaller stems, each about 25 feet tall, will be untouched by the project, while the decaying main stem will be reduced to a height of two to three feet.”

Hopefully the companion tree on the south side of the gate will also survive through new stems someday growing from its base. This is the larger of the two trees, and because of its distance from the highway, will be allowed to grow undisturbed.

The remaining maple is far enough from the road that it will be allowed to remain, undisturbed

As trees around Mount Hood go, the two maples at Tollgate aren’t particularly remarkable — there are plenty of larger, older and more impressive bigleaf maple trees growing in less traveled areas of the surrounding forests. The uniqueness of these trees, of course, is the tie to the Oregon Trail, itself, a piece of Amercian history that is deeply embedded in our cultural identity.

Sam Barlow’s Road

Most Oregonians know the story of Sam Barlow, and his daring expedition over the shoulder of Mount Hood with Joel Palmer in the fall of 1845, in search of a land route through the Cascades.

Sam Barlow and his legendary road

By 1846, the route the two men had scouted and led their own wagons over had become a business venture for Barlow: a notoriously rough toll road that thousands of Oregon settlers would travel over in the years that followed. Many described it as the worst part of their 2,000-mile journey.

The tollgate site marked by the twin maples was the final location of at least five tollgate sites that existed along the Barlow Road over the years, with this final tollgate operating from 1883 to 1918. The gatekeeper charged $5 per wagon, with smaller fees for livestock, foot travelers and even the first automobile, which arrived at the tollgate in 1903. This was a handsome price in its day, but for most travelers, it was also a one-time charge on the way to the Willamette Valley.

The Tollgate wayside fronts one of the few remaining Highway 26 segments that has remained largely unchanged little since the first highway was built in the 1920s

As the toll road era faded away in the early 1900s, plans for the first loop highway around the mountain were underway, and much of the new route followed the original Barlow Road when first leg was completed in the 1920s.

Because the Barlow Road had a number of evolving alignments over the years, many traces of the route survived the highway-building era, and can still be seen today. The original loop highway was used through the 1950s, and was then replaced with the modern alignment we know today.

The Future of Barlow Road… and Highway 26?

The tentative tone in the opening paragraph if this article stems from the terrible record ODOT and the Forest Service have in protecting the historic, scenic and environmental legacy of the Barlow Road corridor.

Highway 26 “improvement” just east of Tollgate in 2004

While the Forest Service and ODOT have made a reasonable case for removing the heritage maple at the Tollgate site, the agency has a long history of aggressive, senseless tree removals along the Mount Hood Loop. Most of this sad legacy stems from ODOT’s unstated objective to widen the highway to four lanes through the entire Mount Hood corridor at all costs — usually cloaked as a “safety” or “preservation” projects to ensure that their policy makers and the general public don’t get in the way of the underlying road widening mission that continues to drive the agency.

One strategy used by highway engineers to ease the path toward eventual road widening is to cut trees way back along highway sections in advance, as a divide-and-conquer strategy. The goal is to avoid jeopardizing a future road-widening project with public outcry over tree removal.

This practice is also rationalized under the “safety” banner, but actually encourage speeding by removing the traffic calming effect that a tree canopy creates. The use of street trees and landscaping in urban areas to discourage speeding is a widespread and fully accepted practice in the modern transportation design, but clearly hasn’t penetrated the ODOT offices yet.

Highway 35 “improvement” currently underway near Hood River Meadows is predictably cutting trees back from the roadway

In 2004, ODOT cleared the shoulders along several sections of US 26 in the vicinity of the Tollgate site, and one concern in hearing the news of the heritage tree is that this project is a precursor to tree removal along this final stretch of mostly original highway, where big trees still grow near the road.

The unstated ODOT mission to widen the loop highway to an urban freeway standard is described in detail in these earlier WyEast Blog articles:

• Highway 26 Widening – Part One

• Highway 26 Widening Projects – Part Two

• Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

Unfortunately, the projects described in these articles continue to advance, with a few cosmetic details thrown in to keep them moving. Sadly, they represent almost $30 million in public dollars that will make the highway a lot more like an urban freeway, while ignoring their own consultant recommendations for far less costly, more effective safety solutions.

The first phase of ODOT’s “safety and preservation” work is slated to begin just east of Tollgate this summer, and — right on schedule — the project has already been “updated” to include widening for a new westbound travel lane, along with “separate projects to remove select trees for safety reasons.” Just as predicted.

A New Vision for the Mount Hood Loop

The beautiful wayside at Tollgate is a great example of the very kind of feature that ought to be the focus of a tourism-oriented highway design along the Mount Hood Loop. Yet ODOT is about to make changes to the highway that will make it much less friendly for visitors. Is there an alternative?

1950s Mount Hood Loop wayside at White River

In a coming piece, I’ll present a different vision for the Mount Hood Loop that rejects the current ODOT plans for road widening, and the dubious “safety” claims that ODOT officials are using to cloak nearly $30 million in projects that will turn the corridor into a freeway.

This alternative vision will offer a less costly, sustainable long-term design that actually IS safer, and also much more enjoyable for the visitors to the mountain that drive the local economy.

Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

February 1, 2010

Original Loop Highway section on Laurel Hill in the 1920s, later destroyed when the present highway was built in the 1960s

As a postscript to the previous two-part article, I offer some final thoughts on the proposed widening of the Mount Hood Highway in the Laurel Hill area:

First, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) process used to gather public input on projects like those proposed for Laurel Hill is abysmal. Information on the web is cryptic, at best, and generally absent. Amazingly, there is no opportunity to comment online, nor information on how or where to comment. When I contacted project managers about making comments, I was given different comment deadlines, a full month apart. The ODOT website contains no information on comment deadlines.

ODOT posts a “users guide” to the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) process used for funding decisions, but this document manages to be more cryptic than the draft STIP document, itself, since it has been written for government workers and program insiders, not citizens. The process is also designed to buffer the Oregon Transportation Commission from public comment, with any input that does make it to the ODOT region offices collected and processed in a way that effectively buries public concerns under official recommendations by ODOT managers and obscure “citizen” commissions called ACTs. Since there is no ACT for the Mount Hood area, the comment opportunities for the Laurel Hill proposals fall into an even murkier void. In the end, this is a process that is staff-driven, and out of step with the ethic of citizen-centered transportation planning.

Second, the STIP selection process is a done deal by the time most citizens see it, since projects emerge from within the ODOT bureaucracy, not through an open solicitation of public ideas and needs, or even a long-range plan that maps out a pool of projects to draw from.

Thus, the projects in the Laurel Hill area will be very difficult to stop, since they surfaced in the past STIP cycle, and are now about to be funded in 2010 and 2011 as a “routine” final step. Since citizens are discouraged from participation in the selection phase of project funding, these projects will likely advance to a design and construction phase that makes them inevitable before any real public outreach or discourse can really occur. This was the case in the previous “widening for safety” projects in the Wildwood area, where the broader public outreach to citizens in the adjacent corridor began long after the project was conceived and funded. This left area residents with a Hobson’s choice between various widening options for “safety” as opposed to real choices for improving safety that could have been less costly and destructive.

Loop highway construction in the Brightwood area in the 1930s

Third, it is time for the Oregon Transportation Commission to pull the plug on the notion of “widening for safety”. This is a dubious loophole in the funding process the OTC sets forth for project selection, where safety benefits generally bring projects to the top of the list.

That’s a laudable goal, but it allows widening projects cloaked under the “safety” mantle to advance, unquestioned, and become the first to be funded. But as the Wildwood project details admitted, these projects are mostly about “matching the cross-section” of previously widened highway sections in the vicinity, not safety. So, this is nothing more than an highway capacity agenda, and it should be openly considered as such, not slipped under the radar of the OTC.

The stakes are much higher for the Laurel Hill “widening for safety” projects. While future generations may choose to tear up the asphalt and replant the forests that were cut away to make room for a wider highway in the Wildwood and Rhododendron sections, the Laurel Hill projects will require ODOT to blast away more of Laurel Hill’s rocky face. These changes are permanent and destructive, and it would take centuries for the area to recover, should our children or grandchildren conclude that we made a grave error in judgement in an our efforts to save skiers a few minutes driving time. The decision ought to be considered carefully in this light, not slipped through without public discussion.

Simpler days: the original loop highway corkscrewed up Laurel Hill, molding to the terrain as it climbed the steep slopes made infamous by Oregon pioneers

It is also true that ODOT has the means for a very open discussion about the projects proposed on Highway 26, and could give the OTC a true sense of public support for these proposals. For example, ODOT could simply post signs along the highway advertising the projects, and direct interested citizens to an online opportunity to comment. The agency could even use the giant electronic message sign in Rhododendron for this purpose, if meaningful public involvement were truly the objective.

I submit these critiques as one who works in the transportation planning realm daily, so it is both frustrating and discouraging to imagine what an ordinary citizen would have to overcome to be heard in this process. It is a fact that transportation planning is an arcane and difficult to understand realm, and for this reason, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regulators are looking for more meaningful public involvement in transportation decisions at the state and local levels. The ODOT processes fall far short of what the FHWA envisions, where ordinary citizens could easily access information about projects that affect them, and make meaningful comment to decision makers.

To meet its regulatory expectations from the federal government, and its obligation to Oregon citizens who fund the very existence of ODOT, it is time for the agency to engage the public in a more meaningful way, and allow each of us to weigh in on how our tax dollars will be spent. The looming decisions about the Mount Hood Highway would be a good starting point for this needed reform.
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Download a copy of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign (PDF) comments on the Highway 26 projects: click here

Download a slide presentation of the 2009 safety audit (PDF) of the Laurel Hill section of Highway 26: click here

Highway 26 Widening Projects – Part Two

January 9, 2010

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is set to begin construction of more than $27 million in road widening projects along the Mount Hood Highway in 2010 and 2011. These projects are supposed to improve safety along the segment of Highway 26 located east of Rhododendron, and along the Laurel Hill grade. In reality, they will do little more than speed up traffic, and perhaps even make the highway less safe as a result.

There are a total of three projects proposed for the Mount Hood corridor in this round of funding, including two “safety” projects that would widen the highway, and a third “operations” project that appears to be driven by the other two “widening for safety” proposals. The projects and their ODOT key numbers are shown on the map below.

Three projects are proposed for Highway 26 in 2010-11 that will add capacity to the road, though only if you read the fine print

(click here for a larger map)

The most alarming of the projects in this round of road widening is a proposed downhill passing lane on Laurel Hill, supposedly making it “safer” for throngs of Portland-bound skiers to pass slow vehicles on the downhill grade on busy weekends. This project is a repeat of the outmoded “widening for safety” philosophy that has already impacted the lower sections of the corridor, and was described in Part One of this article.

The ODOT project details for the “downhill passing lane” are sketchy, but such projects generally assume that drivers forced to follow slow vehicles become frustrated, and attempt to pass in an unsafe manner — a potentially deadly decision on a winding, steep mountain road. But is the answer to build a wider, faster road? Or should ODOT first use all of the other tools available to manage the brief periods of peak ski traffic before spending millions to cut a wider road into the side of Laurel Hill?

The answer to these questions seem obvious, but in fact, ODOT is moving forward with the most expensive, environmentally destructive options first, in the name of safety.

The westward view of the Laurel Hill Grade in a section proposed for widening to allow a downhill passing lane. The newly protected wilderness of the Camp Creek valley spreads out to the left.

A better solution, at least in the interim, would be to employ some of the less-expensive, less environmentally degrading approaches that have been successfully used elsewhere in the corridor. One option could be simply enforcing the current 55 mph speed limit and no-passing zones, for example, which would be much more affordable than the millions proposed to widen the highway in this difficult terrain.

Another possibility could be to extend — and enforce — the 45 mph safety corridor speed limit east from Rhododendron to the Timberline Junction, in Government Camp. Enforcing this slower 45 mph limit would result in skiers spending only an additional 90 seconds traveling the nine-mile section of Highway 26 from Government Camp to Rhododendron. This would seem a reasonable trade-off in the name of safety, especially compared to the millions it would cost to build downhill passing lanes on this mountainous section of highway.

The view east (in the opposite direction of the previous photo) where road widening is proposed to add a fourth downhill lane, carved from the sheer side of Laurel Hill.

Delaying the current road-widening proposals and taking a less costly approach to improving safety would also allow ODOT to more fully evaluate the effects that growing traffic on Highway 26 is having on the surrounding area. And while it is true that delaying a project that has already moved this far in the ODOT funding pipeline is an uphill battle, it is also true that a more fiscally conservative approach is clearly more consistent with the agency’s own transportation policy than the costly widening projects that are proposed.

However, while the visionary Oregon Transportation Plan (OTP) calls for a departure from old school thinking when it comes to new highway capacity, it does not establish a detailed vision for the Mount Hood Highway. But the general direction provided by the OTP does support a least-cost approach to managing highways, and slowing down the latest road widening proposals in the Mount Hood corridor would be consistent with that policy.

Unfortunately, the badly outdated Oregon Highway Plan (OHP) sets the wrong direction for the Mount Hood Highway, emphasizing speed and road capacity over all else. But until a better vision is in place for the highway, the response by ODOT planners and engineers to safety concerns and traffic accidents in this corridor will be more road widening projects sold as “safety improvements.”

Both the Salmon-Huckleberry and Mount Hood wilderness areas saw major expansions in 2009 that were not considered in the proposed ODOT expansion projects for Highway 26

(click here for a larger map)

Over the years, this old-school approach has already created a road that is rapidly approaching a full-blown freeway in size and noise impacts on surrounding public lands. At the same time, the pressure to minimize highways impacts on the forest surroundings is still growing.

In 2009, wilderness areas around Mount Hood were significantly expanded, and the new boundaries now draw close to the highway along the Laurel Hill grade, where the “safety” widening is proposed. What will the noise impacts of the proposed highway expansion be on the new wilderness?

Already, highway noise dominates the popular Tom Dick and Harry Mountain trail inside the new wilderness, for example, more than a mile to the south and 1,500 feet above the Laurel Hill Grade. How much more noise is acceptable? How will hikers destined for these trails safely use roadside trailheads to access wilderness areas?

Nearby Camp Creek should be a pristine mountain stream, but instead carries trash and tires from the Mount Hood Highway. While it is protected by wilderness now, how will storm water runoff from an even wider highway be mitigated to avoid further degradation? How will existing pollution impacts be addressed?

The answers to these questions were not considered when this new round of “widening for safety” projects were proposed, but should be addressed before projects of this scale move to construction.

This view west along the Laurel Hill Grade shows the proximity of the new Mirror Lake wilderness additions to the highway project area.

This view east along the Laurel Hill Grade, toward Mount Hood, shows the proximity of the new wilderness boundary to the project area.

In the long term, the solution to balancing highway travel needs with protection of the natural resources and local communities along the Mount Hood corridor needs a more visionary plan to better guide ODOT decisions. Such a plan could establish an alternative vision for the Mount Hood Highway that truly stands the test of time, where the highway, itself, becomes a physical asset treasured by those who live and recreate on the mountain. This should be the core principle of the new vision.

The very complexities and competing demands of the Mount Hood corridor make it a perfect pilot for such a plan — one that would help forge a new framework for managing the highway in a sustainable way that protects both community and environmental resources.

There is also room for optimism that ODOT can achieve a more visionary direction for the corridor. The agency is showing increasing sensitivity to the way in which transportation projects affect their surroundings, as evidenced by in recent projects in the Columbia Gorge and even on Mount Hood.

To underscore this point, I chose the logo at the top of this article because it shows a re-emerging side of ODOT that understands both the historic legacy and the need for a new vision for the Mount Hood Highway that keeps the road scenic and special. After all, Oregon’s highway tradition that includes the legacy of the Historic Columbia River Highway, the Oregon Coast Highway and the amazing state park and wayside system was largely developed as an extension of our early highways. ODOT can do this simply be reclaiming what is already the agency’s pioneering legacy..

The Laurel Hill Grade on Highway 26 as viewed from a popular trail in the new Mirror Lake additions to the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness.

The missing piece is direction from the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) to develop a new vision that governs how the highway is managed, and establishes desired community and environmental outcomes by which highway decisions are measured. But until a new vision for the Mount Hood Highway is in place, it makes sense to slow down the current slate of costly projects that threaten to permanently scar the landscape, and take the necessary time to develop a better plan.

If you care about the Mount Hood Highway, you should make your thoughts known on both points, and the sooner the better. The process used by ODOT to make these decisions is difficult for citizens to understand and track, especially online. So, the easiest option for weighing in is to simply send your comments in the form of an e-mail to all three tiers in the decision-making structure, using the contact information that follows.

Comments to ODOT are due by January 31, but you also can comment to the Clackamas County Commission and OTC at the same time. Contact information can be found on these links:

ODOT Region 1
(Select one of the Region 1 coordinators listed)

Clackamas County Commission

Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC)

When describing the projects, you should use the “key numbers” shown in the first map, above, as well as the project names. Simply state your concerns in your own words, but consider these critical points:

  1. The proposed Mount Hood Highway widening projects should be delayed until less-expensive, less irreversible solutions can be explored;
  2. The Mount Hood Highway needs a new vision and a better plan

Remember, these are your tax dollars being spent and your public lands at stake. You have a right to be heard, and for your voice to have an impact. With any luck, these projects can be delayed, and more enlightened approaches explored for managing our highway.


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