Posted tagged ‘ODOT’

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 2

February 19, 2014
The winter weekend crush of skiers is nothing new on Mount Hood

The winter weekend crush of skiers is nothing new on Mount Hood

(This is the second in a two-part article. The first part focused on the latest plans to add more parking to the Meadows resort, another step in the wrong direction for Mount Hood, but one that (unfortunately) has already been approved by the U.S. Forest Service. This part focuses on the future, and a promising new strategy that seems to finally be turning the page on an era when ODOT and the Mount Hood ski resorts simply paved their way out of weekend traffic problems with more parking and wider highways.)
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Since the early days of developed snow sports on Mount Hood in the 1920s, winter weekend traffic jams have been the norm. The cars have changed (and so has the highway, regrettably), but the same bottlenecks appear in pretty much the same spots, as thousands of Portlanders pour into the ski resorts over a few short winter weekends each year.

Intrepid auto tours reached Government Camp on dirt roads years before the loop highway was completed in the early 1920s

Intrepid auto tours reached Government Camp on dirt roads years before the loop highway was completed in the early 1920s

From the beginning, there have been overflow parking lots, ski buses, shuttles — even an aerial tram in the early 1950s known as the Skiway — all in an attempt to stem the weekend ski traffic.

In 2013, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration and Clackamas and Hood River county officials, kicked off yet another effort to address the winter traffic overload.

In the 1920s, Government Camp was the center of winter activity -- and overflowing with cars

In the 1920s, Government Camp was the center of winter activity — and overflowing with cars

While this is just the latest of several ODOT-led efforts over the years to better manage the Loop Highway, the draft Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Plan (MHMTP) is the best effort yet. While still only a document full of recommendations, the new plan offers real promise that federal, state and local officials are now more serious about managing the relatively short season of ski traffic gridlock.

Timberline Lodge was overflowing with cars as soon as it opened in the late 1930s

Timberline Lodge was overflowing with cars as soon as it opened in the late 1930s

Instead of attempting to rebuild the entire highway corridor to meet the peak demands of ski resort traffic that occurs over a few weekends each year, the MHMTP focuses instead on low-cost, high-impact tools. This is a radical and positive change in mindset — even if the plan itself still has a few gaps.

The stakes are high when it comes to managing traffic on Mount Hood. The ski resorts have little incentive to do anything except ask the general public to cough up more tax dollars for ever-wider highways. After all, it’s a sweet deal for the resorts and skiers, alike: in Oregon, just one in 25 residents ski, so the subsidy for highway projects catering to ski traffic is enormous.

ODOT is currently seeking bids in the latest round of road widening, this time along the slopes of Laurel Hill in what will eventually total more than $60 million in state gas tax funding over the past decade to widen the Loop Highway from Brightwood to Government Camp.

Camp Creek takes the brunt of trash and pollution from US 26. This scene is the unimproved roadside trailhead at Mirror Lake, where a chemical toilet (and associated trash) sits precariously above a steep bank dropping directly into the stream

Camp Creek takes the brunt of trash and pollution from US 26. This scene is the unimproved roadside trailhead at Mirror Lake, where a chemical toilet (and associated trash) sits precariously above a steep bank dropping directly into the stream

Just a few hundred yards downstream from the scene in the previous photo, Camp Creek spills over beautiful Yocum Falls, a seldom-visited spot bypassed by the modern highway. The pool below the falls is sullied with plastic cups, sport drink bottles and tires that have found their way into the stream from the highway

Just a few hundred yards downstream from the scene in the previous photo, Camp Creek spills over beautiful Yocum Falls, a seldom-visited spot bypassed by the modern highway. The pool below the falls is sullied with plastic cups, sport drink bottles and tires that have found their way into the stream from the highway

The traditional “building your way out” mindset has been bad for business in the local communities along the highway. The wider, noisier road has made it even less attractive for day tourists to risk a stop at the remaining shops and restaurants in the corridor. Worse, the huge 5-lane cross sections built on Highway 26 over the last decade have effectively cut the mountain villages in half by creating a scary barrier for local traffic to navigate, whether on foot, bicycle or in a vehicle.

Widening the Loop Highway is even worse for the natural environment, as highway trash, polluted runoff and blown gravel enters directly into the Salmon River, Still Creek, Camp Creek (pictured above) and the Zigzag River. All four streams serve as important salmon and steelhead habitat, a fact lost on the rush to make room for a few weekends of ski traffic each year.

A New Direction?

The Mount Hood Skiway was an early 1950s experiment to lessen parking pressure on Timberline Lodge - it failed, but may have been ahead of its time!

The Mount Hood Skiway was an early 1950s experiment to lessen parking pressure on Timberline Lodge – it failed, but may have been ahead of its time!

ODOT’s new MHMTP is both comprehensive and innovative. The plan is guided by the following objectives for how future travel should occur on the mountain:

• Improved highway safety for all users
• Expanded travel options year-round
• Reduced peak travel demand
• Enhanced mobility and access to recreation and local communities
• New projects should be financially feasible and sustainable
• New projects should be achievable in the next 15 years

The new focus on cost-effectiveness and a broader definition of desired outcomes beyond simply chasing traffic is new for ODOT — and for Mount Hood. It follows the lead of urban areas across the country, where cities are increasingly moving away from big-ticket road projects that seldom provide the advertised safety or mobility benefits used to justify them, and toward more practical solutions that have fewer unintended consequences.

A decade of futile "widening for safety" projects in the Highway 26 corridor has mostly resulted in dividing local communities and increasing highway runoff, with little traffic benefit

A decade of futile “widening for safety” projects in the Highway 26 corridor has mostly resulted in dividing local communities and increasing highway runoff, with little traffic benefit

To achieve these core objectives in managing the Mount Hood travel corridor, the MHMTP lays out four areas of proposed action – this is the real substance of the plan:

1. Better managing the system: in this area, the plan calls for another plan known as a “concept of operations”, which is transportation jargon for an operations blueprint for the Mount Hood loop from the City of Sandy to Hood River. Elements of an operations blueprint could range from web-based traveler information to new or upgraded electronic message signs along the highway, with real-time updates on traffic, parking, transit and emergencies.

The goal of this element of the MHMTP is to make the best use of the system through better-informed travelers and to better coordinate the various public agencies (ODOT, the Forest Service and the two counties) involved in operating the road system.

How it could be better: the details of the “concept for operations” aren’t nailed down at this point (thus the need for another plan), but one strategy not mentioned in the list of possibilities is variable speed limits along the entire loop. This key recommendation from ODOT’s 2010 Highway 26 Safety Audit deserves to be a priority above other, more costly highway projects already moving forward in the area. DOTs around the country are using this technology with excellent results in improving safety and traffic efficiency, and ODOT should join the movement.

An even larger gap in the strategy is an unwillingness by ODOT and the Forest Service to require the ski resorts to adopt peak pricing as a means to help spread out demand. The resorts are loathe to do this, given their troubled future (as described in Part 1 of this article), but if all three major resorts adopt the same policy, they will at least retain their current competitive positions with one another, while Mount Hood’s communities and environment would benefit from a coordinated effort to spread out the highway demand.

Not in the plan: pricing incentives for parking and lift tickets at the big three resorts to spread demand from weekend peaks

Not in the plan: pricing incentives for parking and lift tickets at the big three resorts to spread demand from weekend peaks

Sadly, it will be a very long time before the Forest Service asks the resort to adopt more aggressive peak pricing for lift tickets, but that is the best long-term solution available for spreading out ski demand. Short of that, ODOT holds the cards for managing parking, as all parking along the mountain portion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway falls within a state-designated SnoPark permit area.

Currently, ODOT charges a generic fee for annual and day passes to park at the SnoPark lots (including all three ski resorts), but the agency should consider using these permits to better manage demand on the highway. This is a very low-cost strategy to avoid some very high-cost road widening projects.

2. Bicycle and pedestrian projects: this much-needed element of the plan calls for improved bike and pedestrian crossings at key locations along the loop highway. Highway widening is also called for to allow for more shoulder space for bicycles, along with bike safety improvements at key intersections and traveler information for bicycles. While not driven by ski resorts, this element of the plan embraces the potential for Mount Hood to become a more balanced, year-round recreation destination, and the Loop Highway becoming less of a barrier to hikers and cyclists.

Notably, the famously crowded Mirror Lake trailhead is called out for relocation to address safety issues with the current trailhead. The new trailhead could be sited across the highway, accessed from an existing section of the Historic Mount Hood Loop Highway (that now serves the Glacier View SnoPark), and connected to the current trailhead with a new pedestrian bridge over US 26.

Rumble strips are very effective at keeping distracted drivers out of bike lanes, but bikes also need enough lane space to keep away from the rumble strip

Rumble strips are very effective at keeping distracted drivers out of bike lanes, but bikes also need enough lane space to keep away from the rumble strip

How it could be better: “widening” for bicycle lanes is a default recommendation that you might expect from ODOT, but the lanes along the Mount Hood loop are already very wide in many spots, so keep your fingers crossed that our highway planners are judicious about where to actually widen the road. In most cases, simply providing rumble strips along the shoulder stripe would go a long way to keep cycles safe from motor vehicle traffic, and require fewer subalpine trees to be cut for road widening.

A major gap in this element of the MHMTP is lack of policy direction on speeding or travel speeds — two of the three main contributors to serious accidents identified in the 2010 ODOT safety study (with winter conditions as the third).

Extending and enforcing the existing ODOT safety corridor and 45 mph speed limit from Rhododendron to the Hood River Meadows entrance to Mount Hood Meadows would make cycling along this most mountainous portion of the loop highway much safer – which in turn, makes cycling more attractive, especially on the lower sections of the loop that are generally snow free year-round.

"Widening for bicycle lanes" sounds easy, but the devil is in the details when the road travels through public forest lands

“Widening for bicycle lanes” sounds easy, but the devil is in the details when the road travels through public forest lands

3. Improved transit service: The MHMTP plan calls for new transit from Sandy to the mountain, and Clackamas County recently received a US Department of Transportation grant to expand its Mount Hood Express bus service from Sandy to Ski Bowl, Government Camp and Timberline Lodge. Rides are $2 each direction, with ten buses daily during the ski season, seven in the off-season. The trip from Sandy to Government Camp takes about 55 minutes and Timberline Lodge at about 75 minutes, so quite competitive with driving times and much less expensive.

It’s a good start, and long overdue. The fact that almost all traffic heading to the mountain during the winter season is destined for Government Camp, Timberline or Meadows makes the Mount Hood area highly serviceable with transit, provided a long-term funding mechanism can be found.

For too long, a very limited supply of shuttles and private ski buses at the Mount Hood resorts have been the sole transit option along the loop highway

For too long, a very limited supply of shuttles and private ski buses at the Mount Hood resorts have been the sole transit option along the loop highway

How it could be better: The proposed transit service in the MHMTP is great if you’re coming from Sandy — or able to drive and park your car there — but it doesn’t allow for truly car-free trips to the mountain in a region that is increasingly interested in having this option.

For years, people have wondered aloud about “extending MAX to the mountain”, but that will never happen — the cost would be astronomical and the ridership on the best of days wouldn’t come close to justifying the cost. But bus transit is completely within reach, and well-suited to the demand.

A proposal called “The Boot Loop” on this blog showed how it could be done — save for public and private interests along the loop highway coming together to make it happen. Let’s hope the Mountain Express pilot project is just the beginning of a more comprehensive transit system on Mount Hood and in the Gorge.

4. Safety projects: several critiques of ODOT’s ill-conceived “widening for safety” campaign along the Mount Hood loop have appeared in this blog over the past few years, and thankfully, some of the worst elements of the most recent phase between Rhododendron and Government Camp have been dropped.

Most recently, ODOT failed to receive construction bids within its project budget for this latest phase, and that is potentially good news if it means that some of the remaining bloated, environmentally destructive elements of the project (like cutting back cliffs on Laurel Hill) are scaled back.

Given this context, the safety projects contained in the MHMTP plan are refreshingly sensible and practice — truly “safety” projects, and not just an old-school highway widening agenda wrapped in an attractuve safety package.

ODOT owes the rural communities (like Rhododendron, above) along the loop highway retrofits to undo the damage from the "widening for safety"

ODOT owes the rural communities (like Rhododendron, above) along the loop highway retrofits to undo the damage from the “widening for safety”

How it could be better: travel speed is the single most important lever for highway engineers to reach for if improved safety is truly the desired outcome. ODOT was bold and forward-thinking when it adopted a safety corridor along a portion of Highway 26 several years ago, and especially when the agency adopted a 45 mph speed limit from Wildwood to Rhododendron.

There’s no reason why this successful strategy can’t be extended for the remainder of the ski commute along the Loop Highway, to the lower entrance at Mount Hood Meadows. As the 2010 ODOT safety audit clearly showed, nearly ALL of the serious accidents in this corridor were directly tied to heavy winter travel, and especially weekends, when the predictable crush of day skiers descends upon the mountain.

What’s Next?

ODOT will be wrapping up the MHMTP shortly. You can track the final recommendations on their project website:

Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Plan website

As the MHMTP moves forward toward funding, the focus will shift to Clackamas and Hood River counties, the Forest Service, ODOT and the ski resorts working collaboratively to bring the various strategies completion. The plan sets forth three tiers of project, but all recommendations fall within a (relatively) short window of 15 years.

The Mirror Lake trailhead could see big changes under the proposed MHMTP plan

The Mirror Lake trailhead could see big changes under the proposed MHMTP plan

ODOT has an institutional habit of saying it “owns” the highways, but in fact, the public owns it - that’s us! Thus, it falls upon the true owners of the Loop Highway to track the details — the specific projects that will carry out the new direction called for in the MHMTP. Perhaps more importantly, it falls upon us to speak out against more funding of old-school road widening projects cloaked as “safety improvements” that could effectively cancel out the MHMTP proposals.

Over the next few years, the recommendations in the MHMTP will gradually be funded through ODOT’s statewide transportation improvement program and similar capital funding programs at the local level. Watch this blog for more details on how the dollars actually roll out in coming years on our beloved loop highway!

Stone Walls of the Columbia River Highway

December 15, 2013
Lancaster's familiar arched walls line the approach to the Eagle Creek bridge

Lancaster’s familiar arched walls line the approach to the Eagle Creek bridge

Of all the engineering treasures created by Samuel Lancaster in building the (now Historic) Columbia River Highway, perhaps most iconic are the rustic stone walls that line the old road. Their graceful arches and elegant caps are a beautiful, familiar presence that has become inseparable from the surrounding natural landscape.

The walls are as functional as they are handsome: foremost, they serve as guardrails, designed to keep 1916 Ford Model T drivers on the spectacular new touring road with its perilous cliffs and winding route. But Lancaster also used them to frame the sweeping Gorge views and blend the new roadway into its rugged natural surroundings.

The intricate details sketched in the HAER record for the Historic Columbia River Highway continue to guide restoration of the old road today

The intricate details sketched in the HAER record for the Historic Columbia River Highway continue to guide restoration of the old road today

This article examines Lancaster’s stone walls in more detail. The drawings included in the article are from the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) program, established in 1969 by the National Park Service to document historic sites and structures.

In 1995, the HAER program worked with Robert Hadlow, historian at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), to produce 27 pages of detailed drawings illustrating Samuel Lancaster’s amazing Columbia River Highway. This historical record continues to guide the restoration of the old highway to this day, as it transforms to become the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. The sketches in this article are the result of this work, and now reside in the Library of Congress.

Three Basic Designs

There are three major guardrail designs found along the old highway: the familiar arched stone walls with concrete cap, a lighter concrete arch found on several viaducts and bridges and the standard Oregon Highway Department wood fences of the era — painted white, and found throughout the old highway, but especially east of Hood River.

The standard arched railing found throughout the Gorge

The standard arched railing found throughout the Gorge

The lighter concrete arch and rail design found on viaducts and bridges

The lighter concrete arch and rail design found on viaducts and bridges

ODOT has been restoring wood guardrails along the old highway throughout the Gorge since the 1990s

ODOT has been restoring wood guardrails along the old highway throughout the Gorge since the 1990s

A fourth design is something less than a railing: along several sections of the road, Lancaster used vertical basalt blocks to form an irregular low wall (or tall curb?). These primarily function to mark the edge of the roadway, as even a Model T could easily jump these barriers. This design (pictured below) is found in several sections of the old road in the western Gorge.

Basalt blocks serve as a tall curb on several sections of highway to mark the edge of the roadway

Basalt blocks serve as a tall curb on several sections of highway to mark the edge of the roadway

Capped arch design on the East Multnomah viaduct (Beacon Rock in the background)

Capped arch design on the East Multnomah viaduct (Beacon Rock in the background)

Standard capped arches under construction at the Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

Standard capped arches under construction at the Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

Lancaster took advantage of the terrain to frame pullouts and viewpoints with his iconic stone walls

Lancaster took advantage of the terrain to frame pullouts and viewpoints with his iconic stone walls

The capped arch design was carried into some of the major pullouts and hiking trails along the old highway, including Women’s Forum Park, Crown Point, Sheperd’s Dell, Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls. More recently, capped arch walls have been added to the refurbished waysides at Latourell Falls and Mitchell Point.

New capped arch walls at Wahkeena Falls in 1917

New capped arch walls at Wahkeena Falls in 1917

The original capped arch walls at Wahkeena (shown new in the previous photo) has survived the elements -- and a major rockfall in the late 1960s

The original capped arch walls at Wahkeena (shown new in the previous photo) has survived the elements — and a major rockfall in the late 1960s

This box culvert near Shepperd's Dell was built in the 1990s using the capped arch design

This box culvert near Shepperd’s Dell was built in the 1990s using the capped arch design

New capped arch walls were added to the Latourell Falls wayside in 2013, with a twist: painted iron bars now keep toy poodles and small children from crawling under them!

New capped arch walls were added to the Latourell Falls wayside in 2013, with a twist: painted iron bars now keep toy poodles and small children from crawling under them!

In the 25 years since restoration of the old highway began in earnest, a handful of exceptionally skilled, local stonemasons are responsible for the many new or restored walls that now grace the Historic Columbia River Highway. Their work is as much art as construction, and their old-world skills are rare in this day and age.

The remainder of this article looks at how these beautiful walls are constructed.

Built by Artisans

GorgeStoneWalls16

The capped arch walls along the old highway are a labor-intensive effort, with individual basalt blocks split and trimmed to fit and mortar on site. Many of the stone workers working on the original highway were Italian immigrants whose skills and masonry secrets were passed down from generations of stonemasons.

Not much is known about these early laborers, though research by ODOT historians suggest that a series of cobble ovens near Warren Creek were built by Italian workers. These ovens may have used them to bake fresh bread by crews camped along the old highway during its construction.

You can find the stone ovens today along the Starvation Ridge Trail, just off modern-day I-84. Plans for extending the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail in this area have been carefully designed to preserve these historic features.

Italian stonemasons likely built the cobble ovens that survive near Warren Creek

Italian stonemasons likely built the cobble ovens that survive near Warren Creek

Building the stone walls began with cutting blocks of basalt to size using drills to create a break line, then a combination of “feathers” and wedges to split the basalt to custom shapes (Figure 1).

GorgeStoneWalls18

The walls are assembled atop a concrete footing that maintains the linear path of the wall. A close look at the capped arch walls shows two runs of cut stone. The first run consists of slightly tapered basalt blocks set over an arched form constructed of wood planks called an “arch buck” (Figures 2 and 3).

GorgeStoneWalls19

Plank forms also frame the outer face of the stone walls – these are shown as “slip form walls” in Figures 2 and 3. These forms are built up as stones are set in the wall, with wood spacers used to ensure the slip form maintains a uniform width for the masonry wall.

GorgeStoneWalls20

A second run of stone facing consists of irregular basalt pieces used to fill the spaces in the wall between the arch stones. After the stone for each section of wall has been set with a mortar grout, the space between the outer stone facing is filled with concrete (Figure 4). Once the concrete fill has set, the wood forms are removed in this initial phase of stone wall construction.

GorgeStoneWalls21

In the second phase of wall construction, the concrete cap is added The cap clearly has a decorative function, but it is also designed to protect the integrity of the wall below by shielding the interior of the stonework from the elements.

Cap construction begins with another wood form built slightly wider than the wall, itself, to provide a protective overhang. Galvanized wire is suspended inside the form, where concrete will be poured around it for reinforcement. Once the form is in place, concrete is poured into the cap form, leaving a flat concrete top (Figure 5).

GorgeStoneWalls22

In the final step, the wood form for the concrete cap is removed, and a slightly arched mortar finished is formed on top of the flat concrete cap. A curved wood “screed” is used to trim the sand mortar to the rounded top that we recognize on the caps today (Figure 6).

As always, Lancaster gave us a pleasing finish with his design, but the rounded top is also functional, discouraging water and debris from collecting on top of the walls.

GorgeStoneWalls23

Creating the iconic stone walls is slow work. But in Lancaster’s day, labor was plentiful and cheap, and he employed dozens of workers to inch their way along the new highway, building the stone walls section by section.

Today’s restored and rebuilt walls are constructed in much the same way as they were a century ago, as described in this recent article on the Sahalie Falls Bridge. While they are painstaking to build, Samuel Lancaster’s walls have survived the elements, with miles of walls in excellent condition after a century of harsh Columbia Gorge weather — a real testament to their quality and design.

More to come..!

Recently completed stonework and traditional wood guardrails at the refurbished Mitchell Point Overlook

Recently completed stonework and traditional wood guardrails at the refurbished Mitchell Point Overlook

For those who love the stonework details of the Historic Columbia River Highway, the past 30 years have been a renaissance. Since the mid-1980s, ODOT and Oregon State Parks and Recreation have partnered to restore or rebuild basalt stonework throughout the Gorge as the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail takes shape.

The good news is that more restoration and reconstruction is on the way. ODOT will soon extend the state trail west of Starvation Creek, including special stonework details at Cabin Creek, Warren Creek and Lindsey Creek.

Stonemasons on the recently completed Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

Stonemasons on the recently completed Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

Plans call for completing the state trail in the next few years, linking all of the remaining sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway from Troutdale to The Dalles. While the spectacular Gorge scenery is the main attraction along this emerging, world-class route, the stunning design of the road itself is what makes the journey so memorable.

What would Samuel Lancaster think of the renewed interest in his vision for the Columbia River Highway? Certainly, he would be thrilled to see his dream of scenic parkway being rediscovered. But given his attention to craftsmanship and blending with the Gorge environment, he would be especially pleased with the careful attention today’s designers are paying to the rustic details — including those iconic stone walls!

Restoring the Sahalie Falls Bridge

November 2, 2013
East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls as it appears from the modern Loop Highway

East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls as it appears from the modern Loop Highway

After years of delay and public agency wrangling, the long-awaited restoration of the East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls (henceforth simply called the “Sahalie Falls Bridge” in this article) began this summer. The project is advancing under a division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) responsible for roads on public lands, and is scheduled for completion this year.

The Sahalie Falls Bridge was constructed as part of the final leg of the Mount Hood Loop Highway in the late 1920s. The bridge was completed in 1928, and is the most dramatic nod to the Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway on the Mount Hood portion of the loop highway.

Construction of the East Fork Bridge in 1928 (USFS)

Construction of the East Fork Bridge in 1928 (USFS)

The structure was designed by federal lands bridge engineer H.R. Angwin as a graceful arch, spanning the East Fork directly in front of Sahalie Falls, with decorative railings and sidewalks built to allow travelers to stop and take in the inspiring views.

Complementing the idyllic setting is a cobblestone-faced drinking fountain, installed at the east end of the bridge. The fountain once provided a continuous supply of ice-cold mountain water to visitors, and was one of three original stone fountains placed along the Mount Hood portion of the old loop highway.

Sparkling new Sahalie Falls bridge and fountain in the early 1930s

Sparkling new Sahalie Falls bridge and fountain in the early 1930s

The bridge carried loop highway traffic well into the 1950s, until the modern-day Highway 35 was built, bypassing this section of the old road. The new “straightened” highway not only deprived travelers of seeing Sahalie Falls, it also skipped the mountain views across beautiful Hood River Meadows, just east of the falls on the old road.

Today, this bypassed section of the old highway remains open to the public (when snow-free) and will be drivable again once the bridge restoration is complete.

Who was H.R. Angwin?

One of the mysteries of the old bridge at Sahalie Falls is the life of the designer and builder, Henry Raymond (H.R.) Angwin. Public records show him to be the Senior Bridge Engineer in the San Francisco office for the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads from the 1930s through the 1950s. Over the span of his career, Angwin designed dozens of bridges in the western states.

Oakland Tribune Sunday, September 30, 1917

BETROTHALS HOME WEDDING

In a picturesque setting of pink, Miss Neville Stevenson became the bride last night of Henry Raymond Angwin. Eighty relatives [witnessed the] ceremony read by Dr. John Stevenson and William Angwin.

The bride wore a smart frock of white and silver with a conventional tulle veil and orange blossoms, and carried a shower bouquet of lilies of the valley. Her attendant, Miss [Mabel] Gustaffson, blonde as the bride is dark, was in pretty contrast to pink satin and tulle. The bride’s gown was taupe broadcloth with a chic taupe hat white fox furs accenting the tulle.

Mr. and Mrs. Angwin [will] leave for an extended trip through the east, visiting the interesting cities en route. The bride is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. V. Stevenson, whose home on Newton Street was the scene of the pretty service. Returning to Oakland, the young people will take an apartment in the Piedmont.

H.R. Angwin was born in 1889, graduated from Oakland High School in California in January 1907, and married Neville Stevenson ten years later, in 1917. They had been married 52 years when H.R. Angwin died in 1969. Neville Angwin died twelve years later, in 1981.

The Angwins had at least two children, Joy and Robert. Joy died as an infant, and is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland with her parents.

Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, resting place of the Angwins (Wikimedia)

Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, resting place of the Angwins (Wikimedia)

Cemetery marker for Henry, Neville and Joy Angwin (BillionGraves.com)

Cemetery marker for Henry, Neville and Joy Angwin (BillionGraves.com)

H.R. Angwin designed and built a number of familiar Oregon bridges during his tenure as a federal bridge engineer. The East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls was one of his first, completed in 1928. Two years later, Angwin designed and built the larger, and equally graceful Salmon River Bridge in Lincoln County. This hard-working gem also survives today, carrying heavy traffic on Highway 18 to the Oregon Coast.

H.R. Angwin's Salmon River Bridge in Lincoln County

H.R. Angwin’s Salmon River Bridge in Lincoln County

Several other Angwin bridges are scattered across Oregon, but most notable in the Mount Hood area are the steel truss bridges built along the Clackamas River Highway in the 1950s: Carter Bridge, Armstrong Bridge, Whitewater Bridge and Cripple Creek bridge all continue to carry traffic today.

(Author’s note: sadly, not much has been written about H.R. Angwin’s long career as a federal bridge builder, so this part of the article is included in hopes of improving awareness of his contributions, and perhaps inspiring further accounts of life)

The 2013 Restoration Project

Frost damage to the railings on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2009

Frost damage to the railings on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2009

The Sahalie Falls Bridge had begun to show signs of serious deterioration by the late 1990s, and by the mid-2000s, whole chunks of the north railing were breaking loose — sadly, helped along by vandals pulling at the exposed rebar.

Railing Damage on the East Fork Bridge in 2009

Railing Damage on the East Fork Bridge in 2009

By 2008, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) had blocked vehicle access to the bridge, and a project was proposed in the state highway budget to restore the bridge. The original ODOT restoration project later evolved to become a FHWA project by 2011.

The restoration focuses on three areas of needed repair: (1) rebuilding the approach abutments on both ends of the bridge, (2) replacing the heavily damaged north railing cap and (3) restoring the footing on the historic fountain at the east end of the bridge (there may be other repairs planned, but there is little information available for this project, so this list covers the repairs underway as of October of this year).

Construction at the old bridge was finally in full swing in September 2013

Construction at the old bridge was finally in full swing in September 2013

Restoring the bridge abutments involves pouring new reinforced concrete footings at each end of the bridge span and improving surface drainage at the west end to direct storm runoff away from the bridge. The gravel pullouts at both ends of the bridge also appear due for grading and resurfacing as part of the project, as they currently serve as construction staging areas.

The following images show the recent drainage work at the west end, along the approach to the west bridge abutment (as of mid-October), including a recently installed culvert (under the wet fill in the first photo) to address the drainage issues apparent in the earlier 2009 photo (second photo):

Major drainage work is underway as part of reconstructing the west bridge abutment

Major drainage work is underway as part of reconstructing the west bridge abutment

Repeated repairs to the abutment and debris washed onto the roadway is apparent in this 2009 view of the west approach to the bridge

Repeated repairs to the abutment and debris washed onto the roadway is apparent in this 2009 view of the west approach to the bridge

Repairs to the north railing cap extend for the full length of the bridge, with the new cap seated on original concrete railings. As of mid-October, the forms for the new cap had been constructed and were ready to be poured, presumably with concrete, topped by sand mortar. The next series of images show more detail of the railing cap replacement:

Forms in place for pouring a new cap along the north railing

Forms in place for pouring a new cap along the north railing

The forms for the new caps are secured from below with screw clamps

The forms for the new caps are secured from below with screw clamps

Close-up view of the wood forms constructed for the new railing cap

Close-up view of the wood forms constructed for the new railing cap

A peek inside the railing caps (below) shows careful attention to original design details, including quarter-round trim along the outer edges. New reinforcing rods are wired to the original rebar posts embedded in the rails.

When the new caps are poured, masons will use a screed (board) cut with a low arch to repeat the slightly curved top seen in the original cap. The plastic sheeting attached to the forms will be secured over the newly poured caps to slow the curing process to ensure a strong set.

A peek into the railing cap forms shows careful attention to original design details

A peek into the railing cap forms shows careful attention to original design details

In a nearby pile of demolition rubble, chunks of the old railing cap show the quarter round detail that follows the outer edge of the caps

In a nearby pile of demolition rubble, chunks of the old railing cap show the quarter round detail that follows the outer edge of the caps

The south railing is not part of the restoration project, apparently because of its relatively sound condition

The south railing is not part of the restoration project, apparently because of its relatively sound condition

The third element of the Sahalie Falls Bridge project is replacement of a portion of the concrete footing that supports the historic cobble-faced fountain. In the 2009 photo (below) you can see where a section of the fountain base facing the East Fork (behind the fountain) had sunk toward the creek over time, threatening the stability of the fountain.

The sunken east abutment and partially sunken footing on the old fountain can be seen in this 2009 view

The sunken east abutment and partially sunken footing on the old fountain can be seen in this 2009 view

The bowl and rim of the old fountain were restored at some point in the more recent past, and are not part of the current project. The fountain is one of three that survive along the loop highway. The fountain at Buzzard Point still functions, while the fountains at Sahalie Falls and Sherwood Campground (below) are no longer operational and simply serve as rain basins.

The bowl and rim of the fountain were restored at some point in the more recent past

The bowl and rim of the fountain were restored at some point in the more recent past

The three historic Mount Hood Loop fountains, compared

The three historic Mount Hood Loop fountains, compared

[Click here for a larger comparison photo]

This view shows the new concrete footing in place on downslope side of the old fountain

This view shows the new concrete footing in place on downslope side of the old fountain

Crews saved this piece of the old fountain footing -- perhaps to be repurposed as a bench?

Crews saved this piece of the old fountain footing — perhaps to be repurposed as a bench?

Once the restoration project is complete, the Sahalie Falls section of the old loop will re-open to traffic. For the past decade or so, the route has been signed as one-way at the west end, where it connects to the Bennett Pass interchange, so the best way to explore the old highway is follow the signs to Hood River Meadows, then turn left onto the old road before reaching the Meadows resort parking.

Celebrating the Historic Sahalie Falls Bridge

Now that the restoration work is finally underway, the stage is set for some much-needed visitor improvements to the Sahalie Falls area. The view of the falls from the historic bridge is missed by too many travelers, and the odd near-miss with the Umbrella Falls trail (just 100 yards from the bridge, but with no trail connection) has resulted in some messy boot paths formed by hikers attempting to see Sahalie Falls.

This proposal would address both issues, and make it easier to visit the old bridge and falls, whether as a spur from nearby hiking trails, or simply by pulling off Highway 35.

Sahalie Falls trail proposals

Sahalie Falls trail proposals

[Click here for a large map]

The first part of the proposal is a short hiking spur from the bridge to the nearby Umbrella Falls Trail. This would be a very simple trail to build, and could easily be constructed by volunteers. It would not only provide a safe way for hikers to view the falls, but would also allow for the various boot paths along this slope to be decommissioned, and some of the trampled vegetation to be restored.

The pullout on Highway 35 at Sahalie Falls is wide enough to easily allow for roadside parking and a new trailhead

The pullout on Highway 35 at Sahalie Falls is wide enough to easily allow for roadside parking and a new trailhead

The second part of the proposal is an accessible loop trail that would allow the elderly, disabled and families with small children to experience the East Fork in a new way.

The trailhead for the new loop would be at the east end of an existing pullout on Highway 35, where the historic highway bridge can be seen from the modern loop road. The first leg of the new loop trail would follow the East Fork to the base of little-known Lower Sahalie Falls, a charming waterfall hidden in the canyon beneath the historic bridge.

Lower Sahalie Falls

Lower Sahalie Falls

From here, the new accessible loop trail would cross the East Fork in front of the lower falls and gently traverse up the west slope of the canyon to the west bridge approach. Once at the old highway grade, the new path would cross the historic bridge, providing a view back to the trailhead pullout on Highway 35.

View down the East Fork to Highway 35 from the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge

View down the East Fork to Highway 35 from the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge

Visitors to the bridge inevitably cross to admire the views from both sides, so an accessible route would probably warrant a marked crossing at the two bridgeheads, where people using mobility devices could most safely access the sidewalks.

After enjoying the views from the bridge, visitors would continue past the east end to a resumption of the new loop trail, following the east leg back to the trailhead. The total distance of the accessible loop would be about 0.3 miles with a very modest elevation gain of about 60 feet.

View of Sahalie Falls from the historic loop highway bridge

View of Sahalie Falls from the historic loop highway bridge

Accessible trails are often paved, but for this new route, a better option would be fine gravel, mostly because it would provide better traction in an often wet environment. But the proposed loop is also within the deposit zone for winter highway snow removal that sends a lot of grit used to sand icy roads far into the adjacent forest. A gravel trail surface could actually be enhanced by these annual deposits, where a paved surface would require sweeping to remove winter gravel.

What Would it Take?

As with all proposals in this blog, the Sahalie Falls accessible trail concept relies on the U.S. Forest Service — and in this case, Oregon Department of Transportation — acknowledging the need for more recreational and interpretive opportunities in the Gorge and on Mount Hood.

While the proposed spur connection to the Umbrella Falls trail could be built by volunteers, the proposed accessible loop trail would be a major endeavor that could only be accomplished by the Forest Service in conjunction with ODOT.

The original USGS survey marker at the east end of the bridge has been uncovered from years of debris

The original USGS survey marker at the east end of the bridge has been uncovered from years of debris

The added twist in this proposal is the need for an accessible trail, something in very short supply in our region despite a rapidly growing elderly and disabled population. Oregon State Parks and Recreation has made great strides in responding to this need in recent years, but the Forest Service lags behind badly, with few accessible facilities built in the last 30 years.

Fortunately, a new guide for designing accessible trails has recently been developed by the Access Recreation project, an ad-hoc organization formed to develop better design guidelines for public agencies involved in trail-building.

SahalieFallsBridge28

The guidelines are now available on the Access Oregon website, and cover everything from trail surface and slope recommendations to best practices for signage and trailside amenities that address the needs of elderly and disabled trail users. It’s a great resource for trail advocates and public agencies, alike — and could help shape new trail options on Mount Hood!

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:

US26Comments04b

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

Latourell Falls Makeover (Part 2)

January 8, 2013
Latourell Falls

Latourell Falls

In the first part of this article, I focused on recent improvements that have greatly enhanced the Historic Columbia River Highway wayside at Latourell Falls. This article looks at the balance of Guy Talbot State Park, where a number of improvements are needed to keep pace with the ever-growing number of visitors who now hike the Latourell loop trail year-round.

Improving the Loop Trail

Hiking the loop in the traditional clockwise direction from the wayside, the first stop is bench located a few hundred yards up the trail. This memorial bench was donated by the Sierra Club, and though it’s not a great architectural fit for the area (a rustic style would be more appropriate), it’s still a welcome resting spot for casual hikers.

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Not coincidentally, the bench faces a lovely view of Latourell Falls, but there’s a story behind the view, as someone has made the effort to do some “scene management” for photographers. Take a look at the photo below, and you can appreciate the waterfall scene in its graceful glory, framed by firs and moss-covered maples. But a closer look reveals a sawed-off stump with a fresh cut. Why here? Because a trail steward (authorized or otherwise) trimmed off the broken shards of a maple that split off in an ice storm a few years ago — leaving a sore thumb that marred this classic view. You can see in these after/before comparisons from now and in 2010:

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the telltale stump!

…and the telltale stump!

If this was sanctioned “scene management” pruning, then kudos to the State Parks folks for putting classic views on their maintenance list. If this is a guerilla effort by a frustrated photographer, then perhaps State Parks managers will take note, and keep this view intact..!

Moving up the loop, the trail soon approaches a heavily trampled bluff above Latourell Falls. Here, the first apparent problem is a decades-old shortcut at the first switchback. A sign begs hikers to stay on the trail to protect “sensitive plants”, but so far, the boots are winning, despite logs and debris purposely scattered across the shortcut.

Tossing more logs across this shortcut might help, but borrowing an idea from the beautiful new stonework at the trailhead (or recently built stonework along the Bridal Veil Falls trail), and adding a rustic stone retaining wall here to corral traffic would be a nice option that would have lasting value.

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

The viewpoint atop the well-worn bluff is really starting to show its age. The 1950s-vintage steel cable fence and mix of concrete and steel pipe posts were never a good aesthetic fit for the Gorge, but more importantly, they’re not doing anything. Visitors have recently pushed a scary boot path past the fence, and down to the brink of Latourell Falls (shown below), so a near-term fix is in order.

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The trail at the overlook has already been stomped into a wide “plaza” of sorts, and that would be a good design solution here, with a stone wall replacing the rickety old handrail. A layer of crushed gravel (another design feature of the recent improvements at Bridal Veil Falls) would further help minimize the mud slick that forms in wet months.

The lone (and beleaguered) wood bench at the overlook is well-used, and a redesign should include two or three places to sit and admire the view. For most visitors who venture beyond the lower falls overlook, this bluff above the falls is the turnaround point.

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

Adding a stone wall to better define the overlook would help curb foolhardy visitors from following the boot path to the falls brink. However, the overlook also needs some vegetation management in order to simply maintain the view back down to the trailhead — this is what most hikers who push beyond the handrails are looking for, after all.

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A few steps beyond the bluff overlook, an unmarked trail forks to the right, descending to Latourell Creek. At first, this seems like another informal boot path, but a closer look reveals a well-constructed trail. In fact, this is where a lower loop once crossed the creek, connecting to the main loop where it returns (and is clearly visible) on the far side of the creek. This is an old idea that still makes sense, and should be embraced with a new bridge and refurbished connector trail.

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

In reality, hikers are already using the lower loop, though a series of slick, dangerous logs a few yards upstream from the brink of Latourell Falls serve as the “bridge”. Reconnecting and restoring these old trail segments would be a good way to provide a shorter loop for less active hikers, and also resolve this hazardous crossing that is clearly too tempting for many hikers to resist.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen -- and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen — and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Moving along the loop to its upper end, the Latourell trail has a few issues at Upper Latourell Falls that deserve attention in the interest of protecting the lush landscape from being loved to death. For many years, this upper section of the trail was only lightly used, but the proximity of Talbot State Park to the Portland Metro region and the family-friendly nature of this trail has clearly made the full loop a very favorite destination.

Upper Latourell Falls

Upper Latourell Falls

The trail approach on the east side of the falls is in good shape, but problems start to emerge on the west side of the footbridge. This is not coincidental, as an adventurous early trail once switch-backed up the slope on the west side, and led to a precarious bridge across the mid-section of the falls (shown below).

The location of this old trail was uncovered only recently. Century-old rockwork and obvious paths heading uphill from the falls have always hinted at an old trail, but a geocache has now been placed along the old path, drawing enough visitors up the slope to add some urgency to addressing the off-trail impacts here.

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

The best solution here is to embrace the lowest segment of the old path by repairing the stonework, or perhaps adding steps where a shortcut has formed, and provide hikers with that close-up view from behind the falls that is responsible for the bulk of the off-trail traffic (the hikers in the photo above are making this irresistible trip).

The upper sections of the old trail are much less traveled, and a simple solution here might be to simply ask the geocache owner to remove the cache. The cache risks not simply re-opening the old trail, but also bringing inexperienced hikers to the potentially dangerous rock shelf where the log footbridge once stood. If the geocache is removed soon, it’s unlikely that visitors would even notice the upper portions of this trail.

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

Turning downstream along the west leg of the Latourell loop, the trail passes a couple of spots where some TLC is needed. First, another potentially dangerous log crossing (shown below) has drawn enough traffic to form its own boot path.

It could be decades before this old log finally collapses into the creek, so a better plan is needed to stem the damage now. Sawing out the log seems possible, and is a job that could be easily in early fall, when water levels are at their lowest, and fire danger has passed. This might even be a job for volunteer trail stewards with crosscut skills.

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

A bit further downstream along the west leg, the loop trail passes the old trail leading to the former footbridge (described previously). Here, the new trail launches uphill along a steep, slick segment built to bypass the bridge.

Reopening the old trail section (and adding a new bridge) would therefore have a spinoff benefit here: not only would a shorter loop be possible (and safe), but the short, badly designed new section of the current trail (shown in yellow on the map, below) could be decommissioned, with the main route using the old section of trail, once again (shown in red). This would be a terrific project for volunteers, including bridge construction.

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(click here for a large map)

Another scary feature suddenly appears as the west leg of the loop trail curves above Latourell Falls: an old viewpoint spur trail heads straight down to a very exposed, rocky outcrop rising directly above the falls. The view from this exposed landing is impressive, but completely unsafe, given the thousands of families with young kids that walk this loop each year. There is no railing and no warning of the extreme exposure for parents attempting to keep kids in tow.

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The safety hazards of the west overlook are twofold: certain death for someone slipping over the 280 foot sheer cliff to the north and a tempting, sloped scramble to the falls brink for daredevils and the foolhardy.

A simple solution could be a handrail or cable encircling the viewpoint, but a more elegant option would be a more permanent viewing platform in the stonework style of the improvements at the trailhead, serving both as a safety measure and to encourage visitors to comfortably enjoy the airy view.

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

Next, the loop trail curves away from the creek and out of Latourell canyon, passing an overgrown viewpoint (that probably deserves to be retired), then descending in a long switchback to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Here, the route crosses the road, and resumes on an attractive path that suddenly ends in the Talbot State Park picnic area. Though a bit of searching gets most hikers to the resumption of the loop hike, some signage would be helpful here — both to direct loop hikers back to the main trailhead, but also pointing picnickers to trail to both the upper and main waterfalls.

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Beyond the picnic area, the trail re-enters Latourell canyon and quickly descends to the base of Latourell Falls, the final area where loop trail improvements are sorely needed. At this point along the loop, we are within a few hundred yards of the main trailhead and wayside, so the crush of year-round visitors is evident everywhere — and thus the paved trail surface in this portion of the loop.

Most of the human impact is absorbed by the trail, but in recent years a messy boot path has developed along the west side of the creek, starting at the lower footbridge, and branching as it heads toward the base of the falls.

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

There isn’t a good way to convert this boot path into a formal spur or viewpoint because of the unstable slopes and visual impact it would create, so the challenge is how to best manage the off-trail activity. The simplest option would be an extension of the bridge hand-rail to block the boot path, making off-trail exploring a bit harder.

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

But there is also an opportunity to embrace the first part of the boot path, where a “mud plaza” of sorts has been stomped into the ground. This spot features one of the best angles for photographing the falls, after all, so a stone masonry mini-plaza with seating would be a terrific way to both discourage the off-trail travel, and give waterfall admirers an inviting place to stop and photograph the falls, out of the main flow of foot traffic.

Honoring Guy W. Talbot

One last bit of unfinished business at Talbot State Park is a debt of gratitude to Guy Talbot, himself. At the west end of the historic highway bridge, a large gravel pullout serves as overflow parking for this popular park. The loop trail crosses the highway near the pullout and in recent years, heavy use has turned this into an overflow trailhead, as well.

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

At first glance, it seems nothing more than a broad, gravel shoulder. But upon closer inspection, it’s home to the only real monument to Guy Webster Talbot — the man whose profound generosity spared Latourell Falls from some other fate, and gave us the park that we know today. After all, the property wasn’t simply an undeveloped tract of forest, but rather, Talbot’s beloved country home. He gave the place he loved most to all Oregonians, in perpetuity.

Few traces of Talbot’s home and the surrounding estate survive, so this would be the perfect spot for a third interpretive sign (the first two are on the east end of the bridge, at the refurbished wayside) focused on Talbot, and why he was such an important historical figure in history of the area.

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

The pullout, itself, could also be improved to become a more formal secondary trailhead for the loop, as well — perhaps not as substantial as the newly rebuilt main trailhead and wayside at the other end of the bridge, but something better than the pothole-covered pullout that exists today.

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

Finally, there’s one more interpretive opportunity near the Guy Talbot memorial: a tale of two bridges. One is the towering, 300-foot long Latourell Bridge along the old highway, to the east. The unique history of its construction in 1914 is a story that should be told, especially since visitors can walk both sides of the bridge on the beautifully designed, original sidewalks.

The second bridge is a curious phantom of history — a former footbridge that once connected the two halves of the Talbot property in an elaborate, Venetian-style arch. Though long gone, the footings for the bridge can still be seen, and are a reminder of the elegance of days gone by.

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The good news is that both the Oregon State Parks and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) are on a roll when it comes to enhancing the Historic Columbia River Highway trails and waysides. Many recent improvements to the Gorge parks and the old highway, itself, have already been completed in recent years, and more are already under construction.

Hopefully, polishing up the rest of the Latourell Falls loop and Talbot State Park can find its way into the State Parks and ODOT work program, too!

___________________________

Addendum: after posting this article, I heard from the owner of the geocache mentioned above Upper Latourell Falls. File this under the “small world” department, but it also happened to be someone I’ve known for many years, and who sets the highest standard for conservation ethics. Had I checked the cache ownership and known this, it would have erased any concerns about potential impacts the cache will have on the area. I now know it is in very good hands!

The cache owner also shared some numbers behind the cache that support that last point: only 50 users have logged it in the 3-plus years since it was placed, so not enough to have a noticeable impact on the terrain. Thus, the impacts that we’ve seen in recent years are likely just more of what we see elsewhere on the loop, where the crush of thousands off feet hitting this trail each year is running the landscape a bit ragged.

At its core, geocaching is a terrific way to introduce people (and especially children) to our public lands, which in turn, helps create advocates for conservation — something very much in line with this blog. Hopefully this article didn’t leave other geocachers thinking otherwise. After all, I own several caches myself, and like most cache owners, do my best to ensure they bring people into the wilds while also having minimal impact on the landscape.

The Boot Loop: Bringing Transit to Mount Hood

August 6, 2012

There is a surprisingly long, sometimes strange history in the effort to bring public transportation to Mount Hood. Private ski buses have carried winter visitors to the mountain almost since the beginning of the south side resorts. Before that, visitors to Cloud Cap journeyed by train, then stage, to reach the mountain at the turn of the 20th Century.

Perhaps the strangest episode was the brief reign of the Skiway to Timberline, an ungainly gondola scheme consisting of a customized bus suspended on a cable lift. The Skiway carried skiers from Government Camp to Timberline Lodge in just 10 minutes, with two modified coaches called “Cloudliners” custom-designed for the circuit.

Was the Skiway to Timberline ahead of its time?

The system cost a hefty $2 million when it was completed in 1951, but only operated until 1956 due to chronic mechanical problems and disappointing interest from skiers. Though it seems absurd now, the operators actually filed for permits to extend the Skiway to the summit of Mount Hood, then down the north face to Cloud Cap before the entire enterprise stalled.

Today, a ski trail carrying the name is the only reminder of the Skiway. The base terminal survives, but is nearly unrecognizable, having been converted into condominiums.The following newsreel captures the spirit if the Skiway in its early, more optimistic days:

In 1986 the first of Portland’s light rail lines opened, reaching out to the suburb of Gresham, 15 miles east of downtown. The system was an immediate hit with Portlanders, and soon there were enthusiastic calls for extending the tracks to Mount Hood. It was never to be, of course, simply because of the sheer cost of building a line on that scale (Government Camp lies 40 miles and nearly 4,000 vertical feet above Gresham) that would never draw enough passengers to justify the expense. Yet, it was conventional wisdom that some sort of public transportation to Mount Hood was needed.

Could transit to Mount Hood work?

During the recent economic downturn, the lack of a transit option has been still more glaring, with gas prices topping $4 per gallon, and an increasing number of Portlanders simply opting out of owning an automobile. For many skiers, hikers and mountain bikers, this once again raises the question: why isn’t there public transit to Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge?

The simple answer is that none of the public agencies with jurisdiction for the area is even considering the option. The Forest Service has placed a few conditions on ski resorts to provide limited transit, but otherwise is silent on public transportation.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has the authority to step up, and even commissioned a 1999 feasibility study for the US 26 corridor. But instead of exploring the recommended transit options, ODOT has since focused its efforts on widening the highway in response to ski-weekend traffic bottlenecks, to the tune of nearly $50 million over the past 12 years. To date, only the National Park Service has embraced recreation transit, with bus and shuttle systems serving several national parks.

The National Park Service already provides transit service in several parks (NPS)

This leaves ridesharing as the only viable alternative to driving alone to the trailheads for skiers, hikers and cyclists. While many hikers take advantage of sponsored hikes and informal meet-ups to take advantage of this option, there is no organized rideshare system available to the public.

What would it take to provide meaningful transit to Mount Hood and the Gorge? This article attempts to answer the logistics of that question, and explores whether a system could actually designed with hikers and cyclists in mind. In this way, the proposal differs from past schemes in that it focuses on hikers and mountain bikers, not ski resorts.

Proposal: The Boot Loop!

Over the years, many people have asked me about transit to Mount Hood and the Gorge, perhaps because they know I’m a transportation planner by day. And while my professional background made this proposal easier to assemble, it goes without saying that this is simply a “what if” concept. It’s meant to show just one way in which transit on Mount Hood might work. In the end, transit is a complex balance between ridership and service levels, and only a thorough transit study can produce a real plan. Instead, think of this as a hiker’s plan for transit, hopefully to spur some discussion!

The proposed Boot Loop consists of three overlapping bus transit lines:

Mount Hood Line (orange) – seasonal route serving the Mount Hood Loop on weekends (Friday-Sunday) from June through October

Hood River Line (yellow) – year-round route serving the western Gorge on weekends (Friday-Sunday)

Cascade Locks Line (green) – year-round, all-week route serving the most popular trailheads in the Gorge

Here’s a map of the proposed system:

(click here for a very large, printable version of the map)

Here’s a closer look at how the schedules could work for these lines (these are clips from the Boot Loop map, shown above). All lines begin at the Gateway Transit Center, the nexus of three light rail lines on the MAX system and home to a large park-and-ride structure.

Hikers already use Gateway as an informal meet-up site for ridesharing, so it’s a natural location for the Boot Loop. The proposed service starts on the hour, beginning with an early departure of the Mount Hood line at 6 AM and the Gorge lines beginning at 7 AM.

Morning transit service on the Boot Loop

(click here to enlarge)

A total of eight buses would depart in the morning on full service, summer weekends: three for Mount Hood, three for Cascade Locks and two for Hood River. All three lines would have additional park-and-ride stops, with the Mount Hood Line stopping at the Gresham Transit Center, Sandy City Hall and Hood River, and both Gorge lines stopping at a new park-and-ride at the Sandy Delta interchange (and trailhead).

By design, the Gorge lines have several overlapping stops, with the weekend service provided by the longer Hood River line helping carry extra demand for the most popular western Gorge trailheads.

Evening transit service on the Boot Loop

(click here to enlarge)

Some Gorge stops would only have morning service, due to westbound freeway access constraints. These include the Eagle Creek, Herman Creek, Starvation Creek and Mitchell Point trailheads. With the exception of Mitchell Point, all have trail access to nearby trailheads that would have PM service, so this would mostly require some advance trip planning for hikers. If the completion of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail stays on schedule, Mitchell Point will soon have trail access to a nearby trailhead (Viento), as well.

A closer look at the proposed bus schedule reveals another benefit of overlapping service: in summer, the Mount Hood Line returning through the Gorge provides additional mid-day and evening return options, giving hikers a lot of flexibility in planning their day.

For accuracy, I clocked travel times for all three routes, including dwell time for unloading passengers, gear and bikes, so these are pretty close to what you could expect from this proposal. How fast would the ride be? Some of the more popular destinations, as measured in travel time from Gateway:

These times are competitive with driving, and if the service seems surprisingly fast, that’s because there are few stops on any of the proposed lines compared to urban transit systems.

Transit Stops for Hikers

One of the unique considerations for recreation transit is providing shelter at the trailheads. While urban systems might be able to get by with a metal sign tacked to a phone pole, hikers would need more protection from the elements, especially if they arrive early for a return trip home.

The National Park Service sets the standard for transit shelters, with substantial, rustic designs in its major parks. Similar designs would make sense for the most popular trailheads like Angels Rest, Horsetail Falls or Mirror Lake.

National Park Service example of a more substantial transit shelter (NPS)

For less busy trailheads, a simpler design could work, though the purpose of the structure is as much psychological as practical: it protects you from the elements, while also reassuring you that the bus will stop when it comes by.

Some examples of more modest structures follow:

Rustic rural transit shelter in Great Britain (Wikipedia)

Simple covered picnic table that could serve as a basic trailhead transit shelter (Wikipedia)

One reason urban transit providers avoid shelters is the cost of maintaining them, given the sheer number of stops in an urban setting (TriMet maintains more than a thousand shelters). But in a recreation setting, the shelters serve anyone using a trailhead, which opens up a number of options for building and maintaining these facilities as multi-purpose shelters and interpretive stops.

What about the buses?

One of the persistent complaints about bus transit is simply the “closeness” factor, something modern urban buses have addressed in recent years with greatly improved ventilation and climate controls. Modern excursion coaches are even better, and the vehicles used in the Boot Loop would be like these vehicles — with coach seats, onboard restrooms and large cargo areas for bikes and packs. The tradeoff is seating capacity, with excursion buses generally carrying from 44 to 52 passengers.

All-electric urban transit vehicles are becoming affordable (Wikipedia)

Buses also don’t have to be loud and polluting, anymore. Around the world, transit providers are increasingly looking at alternatives to diesel buses, with Asia boldly leading the way. China used a fleet of 50 all-electric buses in the 2008 Olympics, bringing the technology into the forefront. Metropolitan Seoul, Korea now runs an all-electric fleet, and many other urban transit providers are moving toward electric vehicles.

All-electric excursion buses providing park transit in China (Wikipedia)

Current battery technology has extended the range of electric buses to almost 200 miles on a charge, easily meeting the requirements for the Boot Loop between charges. These vehicles are currently more expensive than diesel, but prices are coming down, and they have the advantage of zero emissions and much quieter operation — big advantages when operating in a natural environment.

What would it take?

So, what would it take to bring transit to Mount Hood? For starters, an understanding that no transit system pays for itself with fares, alone. Just as automobiles pay for a fraction of the roads they require, transit typically recovers about a third of the operating expense with fares. With that assumption as a starting point, you can scale the total system accordingly, based on a rough estimate of fares.

Let’s do the math: at peak operations, with eight buses carrying a full load of 44 passengers (based on the proposed schedule), the system could draw about 700 one-way fares on a summer weekend. If you figure about $10 for a one-way ticket (or $20 round trip per hiker), that would generate $7,000 toward the 36 total hours of bus operation per day needed to run the Boot Loop, or nearly $200 per operating hour.

With most urban transit systems running operating costs of less than $100 per hour, this rough calculation seems to leave a lot of room for less-than-full buses and the other expenses of running a system, assuming an operating subsidy similar to what urban transit receives.

Parking capacity is a major problem at many trailheads; transit could help reduce demand

Electric buses cost upwards of $500,000, and the Boot Loop would require eight (including a spare). Likewise, the system would require 30 new transit stops, some with sizable shelters. Thus, the front-end capital price tag to start up the system I’ve described here would easily be in the range of $5-7 million. This startup number sounds big, but in transportation dollars, it’s well within the realm of the possible.

But the real commitment in providing transit comes in the ongoing support for operations. That’s where a useful model comes from Timberline Lodge, another venture for the public good that requires ongoing public dollars and private support to exist.

The lodge is managed by a triad consisting of the U.S. Forest Service (which owns the lodge on behalf of the public), the RLK Company (which operates the lodge and ski resort), and the Friends of Timberline, a non-profit that advocates for the preservation of the structure. Together, these partners ensure that the public enjoys the successful operation of Timberline Lodge as a public/private endeavor as no single partner could.

Sleeping is the best way to travel (Wikimedia)

A similar model could work for the Boot Loop, with the Forest Service providing trailhead bus stop improvements, ODOT providing operating funds and vehicles, and a transit provider actually operating the system. TriMet could certainly operate it, but it could also fall to the City of Sandy’s SAM system to operate, or even a private operator. They key is an understanding by the partners that all three have a stake in providing successful transit — and this is where the Forest Service and ODOT still fall short.

Another core premise behind this proposal is that hikers and bikers may be more motivated to use transit than the public at large, for reasons ranging from personal ethics (a more sustainable way to travel), convenience (relax or even sleep to and from the trailhead) to simple economics (cheaper than driving, and no car at the trailhead to get looted). Is this premise true? There’s no way to answer that question, short of a thorough market study, but this article is intended to help the conversation along.

Transit does finally seem like the right solution at the right time for Mount Hood and the Gorge. If the demand is there, are ODOT and the Forest Service ready to step up? We’ll see.

Warren Falls Solutions

February 27, 2012

The strange history of Warren Falls began shortly after completion of the Historic Columbia River Highway in the 1920s, when unruly Warren Creek repeatedly pushed debris against the modest new highway bridge that spanned the stream.

The first Warren Creek bridge was replaced as part of the waterfall diversion; no photos of the original structure survive

Oregon highway engineers subsequently diverted the creek in 1939 through a bizarre tunnel that survives to this day. The diversion created today’s manmade Hole-in-the-Wall Falls when an accompanying flume was removed sometime in the early 1960s, leaving an eerie, dry cliff where Warren Falls once thundered.

This article proposes a few solutions for restoring Warren Falls to its former glory in tandem with the ongoing ODOT project to restore the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Option A: Let Nature Take Her Course

The simplest solution for restoring Warren Falls is to simply wait for the “trash rack” diversion structure to rust away, eventually collapsing into the tunnel intake under the weight of a heavy winter flood or debris flow. Surprisingly, this hasn’t already happened over the 73-year life of the diversion project, but it is inevitable.

Debris flows periodically clog the brink of Oneonta Falls; a similar event is inevitable at Warren Falls

This is the least desirable option because it leaves the maintenance and safety liability of the diversion tunnel in ODOT’s hands, and the removal of obsolete structures to chance. The dry falls and diversion tunnel are visited regularly by curious hikers, canyoneers and rock climbers, so the unresolved safety liability the tunnel presents for ODOT is quite real.

Option B: A Large Cork

Short of waiting for the “trash rack” diversion structure to collapse on its own, the simplest option for restoring Warren Falls is to cork the tunnel intake. A vault carved like a rocky bathtub into the bedrock brink of the falls forms the tunnel intake, and provides for the “cork” solution.

Though the metal “trash rack” covers an opening of roughly 20×20 feet square, the rock vault is tapered in a v-shape, narrowing to the 5 foot width of the tunnel at the bottom of the vault. The “cork” would be a series of stacked basalt columns filling the vault and blocking the bypass tunnel opening. Approximately twenty 6-foot columns, each about 18 inches in diameter would do the job.

The 1939 construction drawings for the diversion project show the v-shaped vault carved into the lip of Warren Falls, leading to the diversion tunnel (cross-section view)

Mother Nature would provide the assist for this solution once the basalt columns are in place, with the hydraulic force of Warren Creek filling the spaces between columns with fine gravels and sediment over time. Eventually, the voids between the columns would fill completely, plugging the bypass tunnel to all but a small amount of seepage.

The lower end of the corked bypass tunnel would also be covered with a protective grate to prevent curious explorers from entering, just as a number of lava tubes in Oregon have been gated to public access. The bonus? A very large, secured bat cave is created in the process!

A stack of basalt columns like these would form the “cork” that plugs the bypass tunnel forever (Wikipedia)

How would the basalt columns get up there? The best plan would be an air crane, as the rock columns would be comparable in size and weight to the timber loads that are routinely lifted in Oregon’s helicopter logging operations.

ODOT maintains an open maintenance field just a few hundred yards from the falls site, with direct freeway access for delivering the columns to a staging area. On-the-ground workers could access the top of the falls from the Starvation Ridge Trail, but a mechanical lift from the base of the falls would be more practical.

Option C: Colossal Dental Work

The third option is the best plan for fully restoring Warren Falls to near-natural conditions. This design would “fill the cavity” of the entire bypass tunnel, permanently.

Construction detail of the lip of the masonry dam that supports the “trash rack” (cross-section view)

This solution uses the original masonry dam at the head of the bypass tunnel to temporarily pipe Warren Creek over the natural falls during the construction phase, allowing for concrete work to proceed within the bypass tunnel.

The tunnel would be plugged in two steps. First, a reinforced concrete plug would be poured at the lower opening of the bypass tunnel, sealing the tunnel exit. The plug would be disguised on the outside to match the color and texture of the basalt cliff.

Next, the rest of the tunnel would be filled with mixture of concrete and rock cobbles — roughly 100 cubic yards worth. Once the tunnel “cavity” is filled, the vault at the top of the falls would be filled with basalt columns, using the same method described in the “cork” scenario. In this case, they could be mortared in place, since this approach would already have concrete pouring equipment on site.

Wanted: dentist with masonry skills and a helicopter pilot license… (photo: Zach Forsyth)

The “dental work” option has the benefit of stabilizing basalt cliffs that form the western wall of Warren Falls by permanently filling the man-made cavity behind them. This option allows ODOT to walk away from the Warren Tunnel site forever, with almost no trace of the old stream diversion left behind.

How would ODOT move the concrete and rock to the top of the falls? Fortunately, much has changed since the tunnel was originally created, and today there is portable equipment specifically designed for the task.

First up is a truck-mounted concrete pump, normally used for precision pouring in building construction, but increasingly used to minimize environmental impacts at construction sites.

This truck-mounted concrete pump would easily reach the top of Warren Falls (Wikipedia)

Moving rock to the top of the falls would be a bit more cumbersome, but could employ a portable rock conveyor. These are widely used in commercial aggregate operations, and could conceivably be used at the Warren Falls site. A low-budget alternative is to us rock from Warren Creek’s streambed above the falls.

Moving heavy equipment to the site would drive up the cost of restoring Warren Falls, so the “dental work” option for completely decommissioning the old tunnel is probably the least viable alternative, given funding constraints. But it’s also possible that ODOT will already have equipment required to do the job in the area as part of the project to restore the historic highway.

A telescoping rock conveyor could be the solution for loading aggregate into the Warren Tunnel (Wikipedia)

Next Steps?

Why link restoration of Warren Falls to the Historic Columbia River Highway project? The answer lies in the intertwined history of the falls and the highway department: now is the time for ODOT to undo an unfortunate environmental travesty from another era.

The historic Columbia River Highway restoration project provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide the resources needed to restore the falls. It also allows ODOT to demonstrate how much highway planning has evolved since the diversion project was conceived, more than 70 years ago.

I will be making another pitch to restore Warren Falls at the Historic Columbia River Highway advisory committee meeting on March 16 (in Hood River). Hopefully, I’ll be able to capture the imagination of the citizens and ODOT staff charged with returning the old highway to its former glory, and make the case that restoring Warren Falls ought to be part of the larger restoration effort.

More to come…

New Lidar Maps of Mount Hood

December 26, 2011

The age of the microprocessor has ushered in a revolution in the fields of cartography and geosciences. After all, few could have imagined streaming Google Earth imagery over a worldwide web when the first air photos were being scanned and digitized in the 1980s.

The latest innovation on the geo-data front promises still more detailed geographic information than has ever been available before: Lidar (light detection and ranging) is a new technology that uses aircraft-mounted lasers to scan the earth at an astonishing level of detail. The resulting data can be processed to create truly mind-boggling terrain images that are rocking the earth sciences.

The Oregon Department of Geology & Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) has kicked off a project to develop a statewide lidar database. The effort began with a pilot project in the Portland metropolitan region in 2006, expanding to become a statewide effort in late 2007. Some of the first available imagery encompasses the Mount Hood region, including the Columbia River Gorge. The following map shows DOGAMI’s progress in lidar coverage (in gray) as of 2011:

A New Way to See Terrain

Lidar imagery has a “lunar” look, thanks to its tremendous detail and the ability for lidar new technology to “see through” forest vegetation. This view of Larch Mountain, for example, immediately reveals the peak to be the volcanic cone that it is, complete with a blown-out crater that was carved open by ice-age glaciers:

Move closer to the Larch Mountain view, and even more detail emerges from the lidar imagery. In the following close-up view, details of the Larch Mountain Road and parking area can be seen, as well as some of the hiking trails in the area:

The Oregon lidar imagery includes elevation contour data, and for hikers and explorers using the new information to plan outings, this is probably an essential layer to include. Here is the previous close-up image of Larch Mountain with elevation data shown:

The contours are not simply a rehash of USFS ground-survey data, but instead, derived from the lidar scans. In this way, the contours are as direct a reflection of the lidar data as the shaded relief that gives the images their 3-D drama.

There are some caveats to the new lidar technology: while it is possible to see most roads and even some trails in great detail, in many areas, lidar doesn’t pick up these features at all. Lidar also edits most vegetation out of the scene, though the state does provide topographic overlays for vegetation.
DOGAMI is now streaming the lidar data over its Lidar Data Viewer website, finally putting the new imagery in the eager hands of the general public. For this article, I’ll focus on the highlights of my first “tour” of the Mount Hood and Columbia River Gorge areas covered by the project so far — a familiar landscape viewed through the “new eyes” of lidar.

Seeing the Landscape with “New Eyes”

The first stop on the lidar tour is the Nesmith Point scarp face, a towering wall of cliffs that rise nearly 4,000 feet above Ainsworth State Park, near the rural district of Dodson. The Nesmith fault scarp has always been difficult to interpret from USGS topgraphic maps, with a maze of confusing contour lines that do little to explain the landscape. Air photos are even less helpful, with the steep, north-facing slopes proving nearly impossible to capture with conventional photography.

The lidar coverage of the Nesmith scarp (above) reveals the origin of the formation: a massive collapse of the former Nesmith volcano into the Columbia River, probably triggered by the Bretz Floods during the last ice age.

The Nesmith scarp continues to be one of the most unstable places in the Gorge. Over the millennia, countless debris flows have rushed down the slopes toward the Columbia, forming a broad alluvial fan of layered debris where traffic rushes along I-84 today. In February 1996, the most recent in this ancient history of debris flows poured down the canyons and across the alluvial fan, destroying homes and closing both I-84 and the railroad for several days.

Lidar provides a new tool for monitoring unstable terrain like the Nesmith scarp, and may help in preventing future loss of life and public infrastructure when natural hazards can be more fully understood.

The ability to track detailed topographic changes over time with lidar is the focus of the next stop on the lidar tour: the Reid Glacier on Mount Hood’s rugged west face. As shown in the lidar image, above, bands of crevasses along the Reid Glacier show up prominently, and for the first time this new technology will allow scientists to monitor very detailed movements of our glaciers.

This new capability could not have come at a better time as we search for answers in the effort to respond to global climate change. In the future, annual lidar scans may allow geologists and climate scientists to monitor and animate glaciers in a way never possible before.

Moving to Mount Hood’s south slopes on the lidar tour, this image shows the junction of US 26 and Highway 35, which also happens to be built on the alluvial fan formed by the Salmon River, just below its steep upper canyon.

Unlike the nearby White River, the Salmon has had relatively few flood events in recent history. To the traveling public, this spot is simply a flat, forested valley along the loop highway. Yet, the lidar image shows dozens of flood channels formed by the Salmon River over the centuries, suggesting that the river has temporarily stabilized in its current channel — but not for long.

DOGAMI geologists are already examining the lidar imagery for these clues to “sleeping” calamities: ancient landslides, fault lines and flood zones concealed by a temporary carpet of our ever-advancing forests.

The lidar images reveal a similar maze of flood channels at our next stop, where glacial Newton and Clark creeks join to form the East Fork Hood River. This spot is a known flood risk, as Highway 35 is currently undergoing a major reconstruction effort where debris flows destroyed much of the highway in November 2006.

While the highway engineers are confident the new highway grade will hold up to future flood events, the above lidar image tells another story: with dozens of flood channels crossing the Highway 35 grade, it seems that no highway will be immune to floods and debris flows in this valley.

The new lidar images also provide an excellent tool for historical research. The following clip from below Cloud Cap Inn on Mount Hood’s north side is a good example, with the lidar image clearly showing the “new”, gently graded 1926 road to Cloud Cap criss-crossing the very steep 1889 wagon (or “stage”) road it replaced:

The Cloud Cap example not only highlights the value of lidar in pinpointing historic features, but also in archiving them. In 2008, the Gnarl Fire swept across the east slopes of Mount Hood, leaving most of the Cloud Cap grade completely burned. Thus, over time, erosion of the exposed mountain slopes may erase the remaining traces of the 1889 wagon road, but lidar images will ensure that historians will always know the exact location of the original roads in the area.

Moving north to the Hood River Valley, the value of lidar in uncovering geologic secrets is apparent at Booth Hill. This is a spot familiar to travelers as the grade between the upper and lower Hood River valleys. Booth Hill is an unassuming ridge of forested buttes that helps form the divide. But lidar reveals the volcanic origins of Booth Hill by highlighting a hidden crater (below) that is too subtle to be seen on topographic maps — yet jumps off the lidar image:

Another, nearby geologic secret is revealed a few miles to the south, near the Mount Hood Store. Here, an enormous landslide originates from Surveyors Ridge, just south of Bald Butte, and encompasses at least three square miles of jumbled terrain (below):

Still more compelling (or perhaps foreboding) is the fact that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) chose this spot to build the transmission corridor that links The Dalles Dam to the Willamette Valley. The lidar image shows a total of 36 BPA transmission towers built on the landslide, beginning at the upper scarp and ending at the toe of the landslide, where a substation is located.

As with most of the BPA corridor, the slopes under the transmission lines have been stripped of trees, and gouged with jeep tracks for powerline access. Could these impacts on the slide reactivate it? Lidar will at least help public land agencies identify potential natural hazards, and plan for contingencies in the event of a disaster.

Mount Hood Geologic Guide and Recreation Map

You can tour the lidar data on DOGAMI’s Lidar Data Viewer, but for portability, you can’t beat the new lidar-based recreation map created by DOGAMI’s Tracy Pollock. The new map unfolds to 18×36”, and is printed on water-resistant paper for convenient use in the field.

Side A of the new map focuses on the geology of Mount Hood, with a close-up view of the mountain and most of the Timberline Trail:

(click here for a larger version)

Side B of the map has a broader coverage, and focuses on recreation. Most hiking trails and forest roads are shown, as well as the recent Mount Hood area wilderness additions signed into law in 2009:

(click here for a larger version)

You can order printed copies of this new map for the modest price of $6.00 from the DOGAMI website, or pick it up at DOGAMI offices. It’s a great way to rediscover familiar terrain through the new lens of lidar.

ODOT lays a big Goose Egg

August 20, 2011

Lost: the historic Goose Rock Bridge (1941-2011)

For this article, I’ll stray from WyEast country a bit, if only to illustrate just why those who love the Oregon landscape ought to be distrustful of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) when it comes to respecting Oregon’s scenic and cultural legacy. Sadly, the agency simply isn’t up to the job.

Case in point: the not-quite-finished Goose Rock Bridge, located on Highway 19 where it crosses the John Day River. The site seems like a no-brainer for what is called “context sensitive design” in engineering parlance. More plainly stated, this means moving away from the 1960s highway builder’s mentality of building over-engineered, one-size-fits-all concrete monoliths that pave over the local character of a place.

(click here for a larger map)

For the engineers who designed the new Goose Rock Bridge, the evidence that something other than a miniature version of a California freeway ramp was in order was painfully obvious:

• Located in a National Monument? Check.
• Crossing the John Day, one of Oregon’s premier scenic rivers? Check.
• Located on an Oregon Scenic Byway? Check.
• Replacing a historic highway structure? Check.
• Minimal traffic volumes? Check.
• Likely to serve bicycles and pedestrians? Check.

Any of these simple checks should have sent the engineers back to the drawing board. Instead, the public received another ugly, industrial eyesore for the millions in Oregon tax dollars spent on this blunder.

Sheep Rock rises above the John Day River, just upstream from the new bridge

So, the damage is done on the John Day River at Goose Rock, and now we’re stuck with a stinker of a bridge for the next several decades: the real question is whether ODOT can stop building goose eggs like this? The answer is yes… maybe.

What’s wrong with the design?

Why is the new bridge such a stinker? To answer that question, we can reflect on the bulleted list of design considerations listed above:

Respect the location: The project is in a National Monument, along an Oregon Scenic Byway and crosses a famed, wildly popular whitewater river. As such, the bridge should have embraced National Park Service (NPS) design elements. This is a no-brainer, and there is plenty of guidance to help ODOT with the aesthetic features, had anyone thought to look. This simple step could have made the new bridge an asset to the John Day National Monument, not an eyesore.

The famed Blue Basin is a less than a mile from the new bridge

Respect the history: The new structure replaces a bridge constructed in 1941 that may have been structurally obsolete, but had plenty of charm and historic significance to complement the setting. The original structure featured graceful, fluted concrete posts anchoring ornate, painted steel balustrades and railings. The under structure was a simple pier design, but included a graceful apron of decorative concrete arches.

Had context-sensitive design been a consideration in this project, these historic details would have been a major element in the design of the new bridge. Instead, the character of the old bridge is now but a memory.

(click here for a large photo of the historic bridge)

Design for the users: The Goose Rock Bridge carries an tiny amount of traffic by urban standards — only about 300 vehicles per day, which is the equivalent of a typical suburban cul-de-sac serving just 30 homes. Just one lane of the Banfield Freeway carries this much traffic every ten minutes.

The new bridge: freeway ramp to… nowhere?

While the bridge does carry trucks, the massive design of the new structure is still wildly over-built, with freeway-scale Jersey barricades for railings that make the new bridge hostile to the cyclists, hikers and fishermen who cross this bridge while visiting the National Monument and the John Day River. Even passenger cars are punished by the new design, with the absurd concrete freeway barricades blocking views of the river for passing motorists.

Would you walk (or pedal) across this bridge?

Instead of the meager striped shoulder that supposedly serves bicycles and pedestrian, the design should have included a segregated sidewalk. This would have been a nice addition for the walkers, fishermen and less confident cyclists crossing the structure, and would have invited stopping on the bridge to admire the view — something no user would be safe doing on the new structure.

Who’s Fault is it?

Where did this simple project to replace the old bridge get off track? That’s hard to know (assuming it was ever on track). The project is one of hundreds funded through a $2 billion bridge replacement program known as the Oregon Transportation Investment Act (OTIA).

Republicans who controlled the Oregon legislature at the time OTIA was passed into law insisted that the design work for projects be sent off to private consulting firms, in this case, two firms — OTAK and Wildish Standard Paving — where the design decisions were likely made, before receiving a final approval from ODOT.

It is a poorly kept secret that the consulting firms receiving the bulk of the OTIA bridge contracts lured many of ODOT’s bridge engineers into the private sector to do the “private” work — usually with better salaries than they might have earned designing the same bridges at ODOT. While ODOT gets the bulk of the blame for accepting the lousy design of the new Goose Rock Bridge, the consultants deserve a good share of the shame, too. For its part, OTAK boasts on its website that:

Otak is the lead consulting engineer for Wildish Standard Paving on this $40 million design-build project along US395 in Eastern Oregon. Spanning nearly half the state, this project includes replacement of seven bridges along a sensitive waterway and wild and scenic corridor.

Nice words, but there is nothing in the design that suggests OTAK ever took the “sensitive waterway” and “wild and scenic corridor” into consideration when building the new bridge. It’s a firm that has done better work, elsewhere, and should have known better in this case, too.

Designed for 30,000 vehicles per day… but carrying only 300. Cyclists and pedestrians are on their own.

Another problem was probably the way in which projects were funded. Many of the bridge projects funded through OTIA followed ODOT’s “design-build” process, which combines the design, engineering and construction into a single contract.

In this case, ODOT “bundled” seven bridges scattered across the John Day country into a single ODOT contract, which unfortunately means more blunders like the Goose Rock Bridge can be expected (if they haven’t already been built). It also means that meaningful public involvement is a remote possibility, since the whole point is to speed up project delivery and cut costs wherever possible.

When will the Goose Eggs stop?

It will take a lot to pull ODOT onto a more enlightened path. This is evidenced by the $120 million the agency has already spent to devolve the design for the Columbia River Crossing to the worst conceivable option, as well as dozens of smaller eyesores built under the OTIA bridge program.

One possibility for the future is to simply remove the aesthetic design elements of project planning from the grasp of ODOT engineers, and handing this work over to architects or volunteer design panels, instead. Another is to establish a design auditor within the agency with the staffing and authority to “stop the assembly line” before construction money flows to badly designed projects.

Jersey barricades belong on the Banfield, not on John Day River bridges

Yet another option is to simply recruit and employ engineers versed in the basics of context sensitive design, and demand the same of the relatively short list of private contractors that ODOT keeps on retainer. In the long term, this is the best option, but would first take recognition by ODOT that a problem exists. Clearly, the agency isn’t there, yet, as evidenced by the Goose Rock Bridge travesty.

There are a few bright spots at ODOT, however, including several in WyEast country. These include the new Government Camp bridge over US 26 and several recent bridge replacements along I-84 in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area. In both cases, consistent pressure from local advocates was part of the puzzle that led to better design.

In the case of the Gorge, ODOT has adopted a comprehensive architectural guidance for engineers on all aspects of highway design has been an invaluable tool, and could be applied statewide in scenic areas, like the John Day National Monument.

Context-sensitive design from the I-84 Corridor Strategy guidelines for the Columbia Gorge

In the meantime, hold your breath. It’s nearly impossible to spot a bad project in the byzantine ODOT design process before the construction contracts are let, and another concrete eyesore appears on the landscape. We can only hope that ODOT projects currently lined up for US 26 and OR 35 along the Mount Hood Loop draw from the recent successes in the area, and not the old freeway engineer mindset that produced the Goose Rock Bridge goose egg.

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.

Proposal: Baldwin Memorial Wayside

October 25, 2010

Few in the Hood River Valley would ever recognize the name “Gilhouley Road”, much less anyone from beyond the area. And yet, at the intersection of this obscure dirt road and the Mount Hood Loop Highway lies an imposing scene that is treasured by locals and tourists, alike: the first big look at Mount Hood as you descend into the Upper Hood River Valley.

On a clear day, you’re guaranteed to see tourists pulled to the highway shoulder, snapping pictures of the mountain rising above bucolic pastures, even as semi-trucks roar past on the downgrade. The scene is irresistible.

Illegal dumping on the proposed wayside site

Earlier this year, a friend and national parks advocate from New England was visiting, and took the opportunity to drive the Mount Hood loop, and see “Oregon’s next national park”. Despite all of the mistreatment Mount Hood has seen, his sharpest critique was the shabby way in which we treat our visitors. He was amazed at the utter lack of traveler information — and confusing information, when it was provided. So, this article is inspired by his comments.

Rediscovering Waysides and Viewpoints

In the early days of auto touring, the Columbia River Gorge had the “King of Roads”, and among the great features of Samuel Lancaster’s magnificent scenic highway were the waysides and viewpoints that dotted the route. A family could load into their 1917 Packard Twin Six, and make a day of it, pulling off at each viewpoint, snapping photos with the family Brownie camera, and often following the short trails that led to still more views, or perhaps a waterfall.

Crown Point is the king of the waysides on the “King of Roads”

Times haven’t changed all that much, since, but the way we design our roads has. Tourists are now discouraged from stopping in many spots, and often take their life in their hands, if they do. Today’s highway engineers are much more concerned about keeping cars moving, at all costs.

The Hood River valley has just one “official” roadside viewpoint, located on county-owned land at Panorama Point in the lower valley. The scene is well-known, but also well removed from the Mount Hood loop highway by a couple miles. This proposal is for a companion overlook to Panorama Point, located in the upper valley, where the mountain first comes into full view for highway travelers, at the obscure junction with Gilhouley Road.

Click here for a larger map

In researching the possibilities for a new wayside at this spot, I first did a site inspection of the hillside above the highway: the area is recently logged, but with a fair number of mature trees left standing. The inevitable illegal dumping is present, of course — the scourge of public lands in highway corridors. But the view is breathtaking, with Mount Hood even more dramatically framed by hills, forests and fields than from the highway grade.

According to public lands data, the land is mostly public, and owned by Hood River County. The map (above) shows a perfect rectangle of public property that extents east along Gilhouley Road from nearby Middle Mountain, largely encompassing the wayside site. One triangle of land (indicated with a question mark) may be a private parcel, but isn’t essential to the wayside concept.

The approach to the site from Highway 35 is ideal: the intersection is located on a long, straight segment of road that would make for safe exit and entry from either direction. The presence of Gilhouley Road means that access is legally assured, with little possibility of an extended battle with ODOT for the right to build a wayside.

Looking south at the wayside site from Highway 35

The larger question is whether ODOT and Oregon State Parks would step up to make this a joint venture with local governments. It seems plausible, at least, given the lack of waysides along this portion of the loop highway, and the obviously heavy tourist traffic.

What would the wayside look like?

The site inspection revealed a surprising expanse of public land available at this site, so I’ve sketched a full-blown day use park as the proposed “Baldwin Memorial Wayside”.

As the schematic (below) shows, there could be a viewing structure, picnic areas, a nature trail and restrooms. This degree of development puts the concept into the major investment category, but certainly not beyond reach, especially since there are no other state parks or waysides in the Hood River Valley.

Click here for a larger map

Because the site has recently been logged, the wayside proposal could be equal parts park development and habitat restoration. While the main feature would be a developed overlook for highway travelers, this proposal also takes advantage of the open hillside rising above the highway. A scattering of ponderosa pine spared from logging provides an excellent opportunity for an interpretive trail built around habitat restoration.

One interesting possibility could be a restored balsamroot and lupine meadow beneath the pines. These spectacular blooming species are native to the area, are already present on the site and could become a popular draw for spring visitors to the area, just as similar wildflower spots in the Gorge are now.

What would it take?

Could a project like this really happen? Some stars are already aligned: Hood River County already owns the land and access rights to the highway at Gilhouley Road. Together, these are an invaluable step forward, since the road guarantees highway access and the land can be used as a grant match for state and federal funds. The site also benefits from access to utilities and proximity to existing emergency services. These are all core considerations when creating a new public park.

Most of all, it would take local leadership in the Hood River Valley area to secure state or federal funding through grants or other sources. Even in times of tight public budgets, this sort of project is achievable, especially if it helps reinforce the local economy and has an ecological purpose.

About the Name

Lastly, what would this new wayside be called? Well, “Baldwin Memorial Wayside” is simply borrowed from nearby Baldwin Creek, which in turn, memorializes Stephen M. Baldwin, who settled a claim along the stream in 1878. This would have made Baldwin one of the earliest settlers in the area.

The Cloud Cap Inn circa 1900

But this is where the connection to the Mount Hood view comes in: Stephen Baldwin’s son Mason “Mace” Baldwin became a well-known figure in Hood River County history in the early 1900s. Most notably, he was one of the founders of the legendary Crag Rats mountain rescue group in 1926, formed after the dramatic rescue he led that summer of an 11-year-old boy lost on Mount Hood.

Mace Baldwin not only gave the Crag Rats their name, he was also elected to be the group’s first “Big Squeak” (president), and went on to take part in many mountain rescues over the years. The Crag Rats were the first mountain rescue organization to be formed in the American West. In 1954, the Crag Rats adopted the venerable Cloud Cap Inn, on the north shoulder of the mountain, and have since been the careful stewards under special arrangement with the Forest Service.

The Crag Rats continue to be active today, and given the connection of this site to one of their founders, perhaps the “Baldwin Memorial Wayside” could include a tribute to these mountain heroes? It would certainly be a fitting memorial, and a fine way for visitors to enjoy the mountain view and learn a bit more about it’s rich human history.

Highway 26 Widening – Part One

January 9, 2010

The Mount Hood Highway in the late 1950s, when it was a 2-lane scenic byway that curved through Government Camp on its famous circuit around the mountain.

Several years ago, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) began a series of safety projects in the Mount Hood Highway (Highway 26) corridor in response to a growing number of deadly highway accidents. So far, the projects are a mixed bag, with some of the projects dramatically widening the highway in an unfortunate attempt to make it “safer”. In making the decisions, ODOT is continuing to follow a path that is gradually transforming the Mount Hood Highway into something that looks more like an urban freeway, one dubious “safety” expansion project at a time.

This recent work went into high gear when Highway 26 was designated a safety corridor by the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), which has the effect of doubling fines for speeding and other traffic infractions. While this simple change in fines may be having an effect on driver behavior, the more aggressive action of setting (and enforcing) a new 45 mph speed limit on a portion of the corridor from Wildwood to Rhododendron has clearly been successful in bringing down speeds along this problematic corridor.

Other projects, like the cable median dividers installed on the Cherryville Hill section of the highway, are simple, inexpensive retrofits to the existing road that leave the corridor mostly untouched. These projects provide a significant improvement in safety, according to early reports (view PDF), while leaving the community character and forested highway shoulders intact.

Recent road widening projects along Highway 26 has been sold as safety improvements, but are more likely to simply encourage more speeding.

But on other safety projects in Mount Hood Highway corridor, ODOT has fallen into the old-school highway engineering trap of widening and adding lanes in the name of “safety”. The traditional thinking behind this approach is that making roads wider and adding new lanes will allow faster traffic to pass slow vehicles more safety, and to have better driver visibility and response time, thus reducing accidents.

But this traditional approach is rapidly falling out of favor, as transportation research continues to show that drivers simply drive faster with wider roads and more lanes. A truism is that on highways, speed kills, so widening a highway for safety is a contradiction, since the wider road will simply encourage more speeding and likely produce still more deadly crashes.

The “widen for safety” approach can also have profound effects on the natural environment and health and safety of communities along a corridor. Building oversized roads in rural areas brings an array of environmental and local community impacts that are rarely considered in the transportation decision-making. For example, wider roads not only require more right-of-way to be clear for new lanes, but engineers typically clear forests well beyond the roadway in such projects, justifying wide shoulders with safety and maintenance concerns, but rarely considering options that would leave roadside forests intact.

Faster speeds also have a number of unintended effects on rural communities. The immediate impact is to make it more dangerous for local traffic to enter or cross the wider highway that doubles as their main thoroughfare. Often, historic local access points are eliminated completely in the name of safety. And studies on Washington’s Snoqualamie Pass Highway also show that speeding up traffic results in drivers feeling less safe in pulling off the highway to patronize rural businesses, thereby directly affecting rural tourism economies.

ODOT cross-section of the now constructed Wildwood to Wemme safety widening that eliminated the A.J. Dwyer Scenic Area (2007).

One of the recent projects of this sort was built between Wildwood and Wemme, where scores of trees were cut in a wide swath along the highway to add road width for “safety”. Yet, the project forever altered what the traveling public had assumed was a protected corridor, thanks to a rustic “A.J. Dwyer Scenic Area” sign that had stood for decades on the highway shoulder. As it turned out, the Dwyer preserve never had a chance in the face of a major highway project presented as a “safety improvement.”

The purpose statement in the 2007 ODOT Environmental Assessment for this “safety” project reveals the underlying highway expansion mindset behind the project — to larger goal was simply to widen the highway to “match” already wide segments abutting this segment:

“The purpose of the proposed project is to improve safety on US 26 between milepost 38.75 and milepost 40.01 and to match the cross section (width of lanes, center turn lane and shoulders) to that of the roadway to the east and west of the proposed project area.”

(Source: US 26: Wildwood-Wemme Revised Environmental Assessment 2007)

Another problematic part of such “safety” projects like the Wildwood to Wemme widening is the manner in which the larger public is excluded from participating. ODOT routinely sends notices to property owners in the vicinity — in this case, several hundred residents of the Wemme community, and holds local community meetings. But public involvement beyond the local community is largely absent, especially for those outside the local area who wish to comment online.

In this example, the local outreach effort drew only three written comments, and three oral comments at a public meeting — with one individual responsible for both a written comment and oral testimony — bringing the total public input to five individuals. Surely, a project of this magnitude and permanence deserved greater review and input from the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who use this corridor each year, but do not happen to live in the local community.

This recent safety project near Zigzag leveled hundreds of trees and converted a scenic 2-lane road into a wide highway.

A similar, recent project built between Zigzag and Rhododendron also destroyed a wide swath of forest (pictured above), and closed traditional access points for local streets in the name of safety. Because a 45 mph speed limit was also established (and enforced) in this section at the same time as the new capacity was added, we will never know if simply enforcing the lower limit might have had the very same safety benefits without the substantial costs and impacts.

One lesson from these recent “widening for safety” projects might be to strictly enforce the “safety corridor” doubling of fines first, or considering applying lower speed limits, to learn whether improved safety can be addressed more simply and cost effectively with simple changes — and with less impact on the environment and community character.

This brings us to the present, and the next round of “safety” projects in the corridor that area about to unfold, a bit further up the highway. These projects are more of the same, but entirely on public lands and in much more difficult terrain. The implication of these projects, and how to have your voice heard, is the focus of Part Two of this article.

Tunnel Point Wayside

June 25, 2009
The sprawling vista into the Gorge from Tunnel Point Wayside

The sprawling vista into the Gorge from Tunnel Point Wayside

Mostly lost in the noise of Interstate-84, the tiny Tunnel Point Wayside is a forgotten bit of ground that deserves a little more respect. This spot is named for the railroad tunnel that cuts through the lower buttress of Chanticleer Point, to the south. In the early days of Highway 30 construction in the Gorge, the wayside at Tunnel Point was designed as a scenic turnout for visitors. From here, the first big view of the Gorge spreads out, with Crown Point and Vista House framing the scene.

TunnelPointMap

Today, freeway barricades prohibit access to the wayside for eastbound travelers entering the Gorge, and the turnout is an afterthought for most westbound travelers, since the Gorge view is behind them. The wayside has thus devolved into a huge, paved layover spot for semi-trucks — a sad epitaph for what should (and could) be a premier gateway viewpoint in the Gorge.

Tunnel Point has two U.S.G.S. benchmarks and a ship beacon bolted to its tiny, rocky cape. Beyond the sterile steel guardrail that borders the turnout, basalt cliffs drop 20 feet into the river. These little cliffs are likely remnants of a more noble formation, undoubtedly quarried to help build the modern highway in the Gorge in the 1940s and 50s. But they still give a sense of the natural environment that once existed here, and provide for an interesting shoreline along the river.

This USGS benchmark was placed in 1956, likely in conjunction with modern highway construction in the Gorge.

This USGS benchmark was placed in 1956, likely in conjunction with modern highway construction in the Gorge.

Look closely at these rocky mini-bluffs and you’ll see cliff-dwelling Gorge plants making a home, while red alder and Douglas fir are colonizing the rocky shoreline on both sides of Tunnel Point. Nature is making a valiant attempt to restore this spot, even if we humans are lagging in the effort.

How could the Tunnel Point Wayside be restored? For starters, the massive expanse of asphalt could be redesigned to restore green areas, with landscaping, trees, picnic tables, restrooms and perhaps a travel information center. After all, this spot is as much a gateway to the Portland metropolitan area as to the Gorge, given that access is limited to westbound travelers.

Next, a series of walking paths could be added along the little bluffs, providing a place for travelers to stretch their legs, and learn a bit about the Gorge. A wooden Oregon History sign is already mounted in the parking area, and could be restored to become part of an improved interpretive display and walking path system.

Wasted space: the vast, barren turnout at Tunnel Point.

Wasted space: the vast, barren turnout at Tunnel Point.

These improvements would provide for a welcome refuge for travelers arriving in the Portland region from points east, but what about travelers entering the Gorge from the west? Providing access to eastbound visitors would be a tall order, requiring some sort of overpass or tunnel to deliver visitors from the opposite side of the highway. The cost, logistics and visual impacts probably make this infeasible, unfortunately.

But for now, improving the wayside for westbound traffic would be a big step in the right direction. Since the wayside is within the highway right-of-way, improvements could be built by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) with highway funds, in conjunction with Oregon Parks and Recreation. Tunnel Point Wayside deserves this new lease on life, and travelers in the Gorge deserve to enjoy this unique perspective of the river and Gorge.

Postscript: after writing this article a few months ago, I ran across a “generic” roadside pullout design in the 2005 I-84 Design Strategy — a joint ODOT, U.S. Forest Service, Federal Highway Administration and Columbia Gorge Commission planning document that lays out the framework for future improvements to the highway within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

The schematic looks tailor-made for the Tunnel Point Wayside, and in this design, reclaims much of the parking area as a park with riverside loop trail. Though hard to see in this scaled-down version, the plan calls for just ten parking spots, with trucks obviously barred from entering (the truck stops in Troutdale are only a few miles further, after all). Most interesting are bio-swales on both sides of the pullout, draining the parking area and adding more green screening from the highway. A glimpse of what might be, perhaps?


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