Posted tagged ‘US 26’

U.S. 26 Construction Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Can’t Get There from Here

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

This is Going to Take Awhile

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

Here’s a rundown of the details from ODOT:

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

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

Finding a New Vision for US 26

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. 26 Website

I-84 Strategy(PDF)

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

Highway 26 Widening – Part One

Highway 26 Widening – Part Two

Highway 26: Last Chance to Weigh in!

Highway 26 Postscript… and Requium?

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 1

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 2

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!

Mount Hood Loop Interpretive Signs

March 2, 2013
Original “Historic Oregon” sign at Barlow Pass in the 1940s (Wikimedia Commons)

Original “Historic Oregon” sign at Barlow Pass in the 1940s (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the unexpected discoveries in launching the Mount Hood National Park Campaign in 2004 was the surprising number of people who think our mountain and gorge are already protected as a national park!

This tragic misconception is shared by newbies and natives, alike, so my conclusion is that it comes from the “park-like” visual cues along the Mount Hood Loop: the historic lodges, rustic stone work and graceful bridges along the old highway. There is also a surprising (if disjointed) collection of interpretive signs that you might expect to find in a bona fide national park.

The new (or restored?) sign at Barlow Pass in 2010

The new (or restored?) sign at Barlow Pass in 2010

The interpretive signs around Mount Hood are an eclectic mish-mash of survivors from various public and private efforts over the years to tell the human and natural history of the area.

The oldest signs tell the story of the Barlow Road, the miserable mountain gauntlet that marked the end of the Oregon Trail. The above images show one of the best known of these early signs, a mammoth carved relief that stands at Barlow Pass (the current sign appears to be a reproduction of the original).

Less elaborate signs and monuments of assorted vintage and styles are sprinkled along the old Barlow Road route wherever it comes close to the modern loop highway: Summit Prairie, Pioneer Woman’s Gravel, Laurel Hill.

More recently, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks have been adding much-needed interpretive signage along the Historic Columbia River Highway (as described in this article), an encouraging new trend.

Oregon State Parks interpretive panels are showing out throughout the Gorge

Oregon State Parks interpretive panels are showing out throughout the Gorge

Thus, I was thrilled when the Forest Service Center for Design and Interpretation in McCall, Idaho contacted me last year about a new series of roadside signs planned for the Mount Hood Loop. They had seen my photos online, and were looking for some very specific locations and subjects.

In the end, the project team picked eight of my images to be included on a series of four interpretive signs. The following is a preview of the signs, and some of the story behind the project. The new signs should be installed soon, and hopefully will survive at least a few seasons on the mountain!

The Signs

The first installation will be placed somewhere along the Salmon River Road, probably near the Salmon River trailhead. This sign focuses on fisheries and the role of the Sandy River system as an unimpeded spawning stream for salmon and steelhead.

This sign will appear near the Salmon River (USFS)

This sign will appear near the Salmon River (USFS)

(click here for a large view)

Part of the narrative for this sign focuses on the removal of the Marmot and Little Sandy dams, a nice milestone in connecting the network of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the Sandy watershed to the Columbia. A PGE photo of the Marmot Dam demolition in 2007 is included on the display, along with river scenes of the Sandy and Salmon. The Salmon River image on the first sign is the only one I captured specifically for the project, in early 2012. It’s a rainy winter scene along the Old Salmon River Trail.

The second sign will be placed at the Little Zigzag trailhead, located along a section of the original Mount Hood Loop highway at the base of the Laurel Hill Grade. The site already has an interpretive sign, so I’m not sure if this is an addition or replacement for the existing (and somewhat weather-worn) installation.

This sign will be located at the Little Zigzag trailhead (USFS)

This sign will be located at the Little Zigzag trailhead (USFS)

(click here for a large view)

The content of the Little Zigzag sign is unique, launching into a surprisingly scientific explanation of how the negative ions created by streams and waterfalls feed your brain to give you a natural high! Not your everyday interpretive sign..! It also includes a decent trail map describing the hike to Little Zigzag falls, as well as other trails in the area.

The Forest Service used several of my images on this sign: views of Little Zigzag Falls, the Little Zigzag River and several botanical shots are incorporated into the layout.

The Little Zigzag Falls image has a bit of a back story: the Forest Service designers couldn’t take their eyes off a log sticking up from the left tier of the falls. To them, it looked like some sort of flaw in the image. I offered to edit it out, and after much debate, they decided to go ahead and use the “improved” scene. While I was at it, I also clipped off a twig on the right tier of the falls. Both edits can be seen on the large image, below:

USFS_Panel_1a

(click here for a larger image)

I should note that I rarely edit features out of a photo — and only when the element in question is something ephemeral, anyway: loose branches, logs, or other debris, mostly… and sometimes the occasional hiker (or dog) that walks into a scene!

The third sign will be installed at the popular Mirror Lake trailhead, near Government Camp. Like the Little Zigzag sign, this panel has a trail map and hike description for Mirror Lake and Tom Dick and Harry Mountain.

A nice touch on Mirror Lake sign is the shout-out to the Children & Nature Network, a public-private collaborative promoting kids in the outdoors. I can’t think of a better trail for this message, as Mirror Lake has long been a “gateway” trail where countless visitors to Mount Hood have had their first real hiking experience.

This sign will be at the Mirror Lake trailhead (USFS)

This sign will be at the Mirror Lake trailhead (USFS)

(click here for a large view)

The Forest Service team used a couple of my photos in the Mirror Lake layout: a summertime shot of the lake with Tom Dick and Harry Mountain in the background, and a family at the edge of the lake, and a second “classic” view of alpenglow on Mount Hood from the lakeshore.

The fourth sign in the series focuses on geology. Surprisingly, it’s not aimed at familiar south side volcanic features like Crater Rock — a theme that was called out in some of the early materials the Forest Service sent me. Instead, this panel describes huge Newton Clark Ridge, and will apparently be installed at the Bennett Pass parking area.

This sign is planned for Bennett Pass (USFS)

This sign is planned for Bennett Pass (USFS)

(click here for a large view)

In a previous blog article, I argue Newton Clark Ridge to be a medial moraine, as opposed to currently accepted theory of a pyroclastic flow deposited on top of a glacier. The Forest Service interpretive panel mostly goes with the conventional pyroclastic flow theory, but hedges a bit, describing it as “remnant” of two glaciers… which sounds more like a medial moraine!

The Newton Clark Ridge sign also includes a description of the many debris flows that have rearranged Highway 35 over the past few decades (and will continue to). One missed opportunity is to have included some of the spectacular flood images that ODOT and Forest Service crews captured after the last event, like this 2006 photo of Highway 35 taken just east of Bennett Pass:

Missed opportunity: photo of the 2006 Newton Creek Floods (USFS)

Missed opportunity: photo of the 2006 Newton Creek Floods (USFS)

The Forest Service used two of my photos for this sign, both taken from viewpoints along the old Bennett Pass Road, about two miles south of the parking area. One wrinkle in how well this sign actually works for visitors is the fact that Newton-Clark Ridge is only partially visible from the Bennett Pass parking lot, whereas it is very prominent from the viewpoints located to the south. Maybe this was the point of using the photos?

The real Newton Clark (1837-1918)

The real Newton Clark (1837-1918)

There is also a glitch in this panel that I failed to catch during the production phase: the hyphen between “Newton” and “Clark” in the title and throughout the text. There’s a lot of confusion about this point, but it turns out that Newton Clark was one person, not two: a decorated Civil War veteran who fought at Shiloh and Vicksburg, among many prominent battles, then moved to the Hood River Valley in 1887, where he was a local surveyor, farmer and early explorer of Mount Hood’s backcountry.

Newton Clark was part of the first white party to visit (and name) Lost Lake, and today’s Newton Clark Glacier and nearby Surveyors Ridge are named for him. The confusion comes from the subsequent naming of the two major streams that flow from the Newton Clark Glacier as “Clark Creek” and “Newton Creek”, suggesting two different namesakes. Hopefully, the local Forest Service staff caught this one before the actual sign was produced!

Strange Bedfellows?

I was somewhat torn as to whether to post this article, as it goes without saying that the WyEast Blog and Mount Hood National Park Campaign are not exactly open love letters to the U.S. Forest Service. So, why did I participate in their interpretive sign project?

First, it wasn’t for the money – there wasn’t any, and I didn’t add a dime to the federal deficit! I don’t sell any of my photos, though I do regularly donate them to friendly causes. So, even though the Forest Service did offer to pay for the images, they weren’t for sale.

One that won’t be built? This sign was originally conceived for Buzzard Point, near Barlow Pass, but it’s not clear if it made the final cut (USFS)

One that won’t be built? This sign was originally conceived for Buzzard Point, near Barlow Pass, but it’s not clear if it made the final cut (USFS)

(click here for a large version)

In this case, once I understood the purpose of the project, it quickly moved into the “worthy cause” column, and I offered to donate whatever images the Forest Service could use, provided I see the context — and now you have, too, in this preview of the new signs!

I will also point out that the Forest Service project staff were terrific to work with, and very dedicated to making a positive difference. We’re fortunate to have them in public service, and that’s a genuine comment, despite my critiques of the agency, as a whole.

Here’s a little secret about the crazy-quilt-bureaucracy that is the Forest Service: within the ranks, there are a lot of professionals who are equally frustrated with the agency’s legacy of mismanagement. While I may differ on the ability of the agency to actually be reformed, I do commend their commitment to somehow making it work. I wish them well in their efforts, and when possible, I celebrate their efforts on this blog.

So you want to change the Forest Service from within..?

1960s visitors in Glacier National Park (NPS)

1960s visitors in Glacier National Park (NPS)

Given the frustrating peril of good sailors aboard a sinking ship, it turns out there are some great options for supporting those in the Forest Service ranks seeking to make a positive difference. So, I thought I would close this article by profiling a couple of non-profit advocacy organizations with a specific mission of promoting sustainable land management and improving the visitor experience on our public lands. I hope you will take a look at what they do, and consider supporting them if you’re of like mind:

USFS_Panel_7

The National Association for Interpretation (NAI) is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) involved in the interpretation of natural and cultural heritage resources in settings such as national parks, forests, museums, nature centers and historical sites. Their membership includes more than 5,000 volunteers and professionals in over 30 countries.

Original “Historic Oregon” sign at Barlow Pass in the 1940s (Wikimedia Commons)

Original “Historic Oregon” sign at Barlow Pass in the 1940s (Wikimedia Commons)

The Forest Service has a conservation watchdog group all its own, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) based right here in Oregon. Their mission is to protect our national forests and to reform the U.S. Forest Service by advocating environmental ethics, educating citizens, and defending whistleblowers. The FSEEE membership is made up of thousands of concerned citizens, former and present Forest Service employees, other public land resource managers, and activists working to change the Forest Service’s basic land management philosophy.

I take great comfort in simply knowing that both organizations exist, and are actively keeping an eye on the Forest Service… from within!

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.

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.


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