Posted tagged ‘Highway 26’

A New Vision for Mirror Lake (Part 2 of 3)

November 30, 2015
MirrorLake2.01

Today’s Mirror Lake trailhead will soon be history

 Big changes are coming to the Mirror Lake Trail on Mount Hood, perhaps the single most visited trail on the mountain. This is the second of three articles on the future of Mirror Lake, and the need for a broader vision to guide recreation in the area. This article focuses on the alternatives under consideration for a new trailhead.

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It’s true. We’re about to lose the historic Mirror Lake trailhead along Highway 26. If you’re like me (and countless other Oregonians), you might have been introduced to hiking and the great outdoors along this classic family trail.

The visibility and convenience of the Mirror Lake trailhead, with its prominent location along the last bend of the Mount Hood Loop Highway as you approach Government Camp, is one of the main reasons this trail has functioned as a “gateway” for novice hikers, stopping at the first trail they see. The short hike to the lake has also made this trip friendly and fun for families with very young kids.

Until recently, the Mirror Lake Trail was also the perfect place to learn the sport of snowshoeing — until the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) closed the trailhead to winter parking in 2010, that is.

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Low snowfall in the winter of 2010 meant the first winter closure of the Mirror Lake trailhead went largely ignored, though the closure has become real in subsequent years

The 2010 winter closure foreshadowed the future, as ODOT always intended to close the trailhead entirely. Now, after years of back and forth with the Forest Service and an array of advocacy groups, and ODOT has won this battle. ODOT’s determination to morph our loop highway into an urban-style freeway came in the form of the $37 million widening project now underway (read more about there here: https://wyeastblog.org/2014/06/30/u-s-26-construction-begins/), and in the tradition of most state highway departments, it was an unstoppable force.

Planning the New Trailhead

Now that the Forest Service has agreed to relocate the trailhead, a little-known branch of the federal government known as the Western Federal Lands Highway Division is taking the lead on finding a new site on behalf of both ODOT and the Forest Service. The planning process kicked off in earnest on October 29 with a lightly attended open house at the Zigzag Ranger District, and the proposal details have since been added to the project website.

You may have seen other changes in the area. ODOT is midway through a major widening of the Mount Hood Highway that will bring a freeway-style concrete barrier to the entire Laurel Hill grade, from Government Camp all the way down to the Kiwanis Camp Road (the old highway section that leads to Little Zigzag Falls).

MirrorLake2.03

“New and improved” highway scars like these along the Mount Hood loop are part of ODOT’s plan to allow weekend skiers to drive just a bit faster

This means the historic trailheads at Laurel Hill and Mirror Lake will only be accessible from the eastbound highway. Portland area hikers leaving Mirror Lake would need to drive east to Government Camp and turn around to head west. Likewise, hikers coming from the east would need to drive to the bottom of the hill, and turn around at Kiwanis Camp Road to reach the Laurel Hill and Mirror Lake trailheads.

Given the implications of the new highway median, the Forest Service has conceded to move the trailhead, and not further explore options for keeping the historic trailhead open to general use. To help this effort, the Forest Service received a grant in 2014 that helped fund the analysis of different trailhead options.

MirrorLake2.04

(click here for a larger map)

The most promising of the various trailhead options under consideration from a logistics standpoint is simply using the Ski Bowl parking area (which, like the rest of the Ski Bowl land, is owned by the public with a long-term lease granted to Ski Bowl to operate here). Not surprisingly, the resort is concerned about sharing their highway access, and was present at the October 29 project open house.

Despite the resort’s concerns, the FHWA and Forest Service have nonetheless ruled out other possible sites (described later in this article), and are now focused solely on the Ski Bowl site with several design options under consideration. The following map shows the four options in relation to the Ski Bowl parking lot:

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(click here for a larger map)

The preferred site has other complications. Much of the land here is within a protected stream buffer that follows Camp Creek. Government Camp’s sewage treatment facility is also located here (in the center of the map, above, and pictured below), and must be designed around for both security and aesthetic reasons.

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The Government Camp sewage treatment plan hides just behind a thin band of trees along the Ski Bowl parking area.

The new trailhead project proposes about fifty parking spaces in the new parking area. That sounds small (and is), considering the crowds on a typical weekend at Mirror Lake, but that’s intentional. The Forest Service is looking to reduce the human impact on Mirror Lake, with a parking area sized to what they see as the optimal maximum for the area (more on this later in the article).

With the proposed new parking area and trail located adjacent to Ski Bowl, there is obviously a large existing parking area that will allow a lot more than 50 cars at trailhead in the off-season for the resort, so it’s unclear of limiting the number of spaces can really limit the number of hikers on the trail. The Ski Bowl resort’s concerns are mostly about winter use, when snowshoers and backcountry skiers could overflow to use the resort parking area and displace resort visitors.

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Panorama of the massive new road cut underway opposite the historic Mirror Lake trailhead on US 26; a concrete median will soon be added here.

The Forest Service and ODOT are proposing to plow the new trailhead parking area in winter and (presumably) add it to the SnoPark system, so this represents a big improvement over the current situation.

Since the ODOT winter closure of the existing trailhead was put in place, snowshoers have simply walked the shoulder of Highway 26 from Ski Bowl to gain access to the historic trailhead — a potentially dangerous (and rather scary) idea. Providing plowed winter access at the new trailhead should resolve this problem.

Another benefit of locating the new trailhead at the Ski Bowl site is proximity to Government Camp. The village has been working hard to become a year-round resort community with a network of new trails now surrounding the community. All four design options would create much better access to Mirror Lake and the surrounding wilderness area for Government Camp visitors and residents, albeit with a sketchy highway crossing.

Considering the Options

With the approximate site for the new trailhead already selected at Ski Bowl, the FHWA and the Forest Service are now concentrating on design options. The Ski Bowl site has many physical limitations, so the focus is on how to integrate the new trailhead with the various site constraints presented by the proximity to Ski Bowl, including the wastewater treatment plant and a 340-foot protected buffer along Camp Creek, itself.

The first design (Option 1) features a suburban style cul-de-sac that would double back from the west approach along Highway 26, running parallel to the highway:

MirrorLake2.08

(click here for a larger map)

This option would require a lot of tree removal as well as extensive fill under the turnaround portion. It would also extend into the protected buffer along Camp Creek. The turnaround is oversized for snowplows, but this design also creates a practical parking enforcement issue during the snow-free seasons, as hikers would almost certainly park in the turnaround during busy summer weekend.

The second design (Option 2) features a triangular loop tucked behind the wastewater treatment plant:

MirrorLake2.09

(click here for a larger map)

This design is an improvement over the first option because it allows for more efficient plowing and use of paved areas. The landscaped center area could even function as a useful place for a few picnic tables for waiting visitors meeting at the trailhead during the snow-free seasons.

The loop in Option 2 could also make it more efficient for law enforcement to patrol and for users to spot suspicious activity. However, like the first design, this option intrudes significantly into the 340-foot protected buffer along Camp Creek and would require removal of a fairly large number of trees.

The third design (Option 3) features a tighter loop that omits the landscaped center included in the second option:

MirrorLake2.10

(click here for a larger map)

Like the first two options, this version extends significantly into the protected buffer along Camp Creek and would require a fair amount of fill and tree removal. Like the second option, Option 3 makes efficient use of paved areas and the loop design would make for easier plowing and patrolling by law enforcement.

The fourth option is the “preferred” option by FHWA and the Forest Service:

MirrorLake2.11

(click here for a larger map)

 This option is preferred mostly because it falls outside the protected 340-foot Camp Creek buffer. I walked the site with the Zigzag District Ranger in late 2014, and while it does make sense as the most compact design, it’s also an attempt to squeeze a lot into a very narrow, surprisingly steep strip of land between the treatment plant and highway.

While the mockup illustration (above) for Option 4 shows a few trees left between the parking area and treatment plant, in reality it would be difficult to achieve the amount of fill required to build the new parking area without removing all of the trees along the north edge of the treatment plant. Over time, this could be remedied with new tree plantings along the fill slope, but in the near term, visitors would enjoy a birds-eye view of the open settling ponds and the treatment plant operators may be concerned about this new level of public visibility.

Tree removal is a concern in all of the designs, as this area contains stands of Alaska cedar, a high-elevation cousin of Western red cedar found throughout the Government Camp area, but relatively uncommon in the Cascades.

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The graceful, drooping form of Alaska Cedar make it a prized commercial landscape tree

All four options feature a very tight turning sequence for drivers arriving from the west, with a right turn into the shared driveway with the Ski Bowl resort, and almost immediately a second right turn into the trailhead parking. These turns create a blind corner for approaching traffic that probably warrants a deceleration lane along the highway — especially given ODOT’s determination to promote high-speed travel along the loop highway.

No Longer Considered…

The FHWA and Forest Service have already dropped some intriguing trailhead locations that I will briefly describe here. For context, the map below shows four of the five sites original sites (those located closest to Government Camp) considered — the four final design options now under consideration are all located at Site 2 on this map:

MirrorLake2.12

(click here for a larger map)

Site 1 is at the end of the Kiwanis Camp Road, which is really an original segment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway:

MirrorLake2.13

(click here for a larger map)

This site already serves as the trailhead for the Little Zigzag Falls trail and a closed section of the old highway leads to the Pioneer Bridle Trail. This site was dropped because of the added distance to reach Mirror Lake and the difficulty in creating a trail crossing over Highway 26 for hikers.

Site 2 is the Ski Bowl location where the previously described design options are still under study:

MirrorLake2.14

(click here for a larger map)

Sites 3 and 4 are located along another portion of the original Mount Hood Highway, opposite Site 2 and the Ski Bowl parking area:

MirrorLake2.15

(click here for a larger map)

The Glacier View snow park and trailhead is already located along this segment of old highway, and the concept behind both Sites 3 and 4 was to build a larger, shared snow park with a pedestrian bridge over Highway 26 to connect to the Mirror Lake trail. These sites were dropped because of the scale and complexity of spanning Highway 26 with a foot bridge, especially after the highway widening project greatly increased the width of the highway, itself.

Site 5 is located at a quarry at the foot of Laurel Hill, below a prominent rocky knob along the highway created by the road cut (and known as the “Map Curve” to ODOT):

MirrorLake2.16

(click here for a larger map)

While this site was dropped because of its distance from Mirror Lake, it nevertheless offers exciting opportunities as an alternative trailhead and the potential for a broader strategy to manage the heavy visitation to Mirror Lake. Part 3 of this series will explore the possibility of a larger trail network and more hiking options as a strategy for reducing the pressure on Mirror Lake in the long term.

Tragedy of the Commons?

As disappointing as it may be to lose the historic Mirror Lake trailhead, there are some clear environmental benefits that could be achieved.

First, the new trailhead will about a mile east of the historic trailhead, meaning a longer hike by about two miles, round trip. While this will make the trail less accessible to young families, it’s also true that the lake is showing serious damage from overuse. If the more distant trailhead discourages a few hikers, that could be a win for the lake.

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The Forest Service has done extensive soil stabilization work at Mirror Lake just to keep pace with heavy foot traffic.

As I have argued before on this blog, placing physical barriers to outdoor recreation is tragically short sighted if our goal as a society it to encourage people to be more active and to enjoy and take responsibility for our public lands. Thus, I favor other strategies for addressing heavy use on trails, including peak parking fees at the busiest trailheads.

Eventually, the Mount Hood National Forest will have to adopt a real parking strategy on some of its most heavily used sites, but the agency so far has not acknowledged that reality. Instead, its planners are viewing washed-out bridges (Ramona Falls) and trailhead closures (Mirror Lake) as helpful interventions to tame the masses. That’s a poor solution pretending to be a strategy.

Nonetheless, the Forest Service is clearly a long way from adopting a comprehensive trailhead parking policy at Mount Hood, so for Mirror Lake. Making the hike more difficult is probably the only near-term option if the number of hikers can actually be reduced, however short-sighted the approach.

MirrorLake2.18

Rill erosion like this is common where Highway 26 abuts Camp Creek, pouring road gravel and pollutants directly into a protected salmon and steelhead stream

Moving the Mirror Lake trailhead could also allow for a meaningful effort by ODOT and the Forest Service to protect Camp Creek from sediment and runoff pollution from Highway 26.

While ODOT is spending tens of millions to carve away solid rock slopes in order to widen the highway, no funds were set aside to improve stream protection for Camp Creek. The creek is home to protected salmon and steelhead, and eventually it flows into the Sandy River — one of the few spawning streams in the Columbia River system with no dams to block fish passage.

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Highway runoff now pours sediment and pollutants directly into Camp Creek at the Mirror Lake trailhead.

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Looking east along Camp Creek (on the right) and Highway 26 showing rill erosion directly from the road surface into the stream

The Forest Service has indicated a commitment to decommission and restore the historic trailhead once the new trailhead has been constructed. That’s a good start, but it’s unclear whether channeling highway runoff away from Camp Creek is part of that plan.

Ideally, ODOT would construct a concrete curb to divert highway runoff for the entire 1-mile highway section that abuts Camp Creek, from the historic trailhead east to the Ski Bowl entrance.

The actual drainage design would more complex, as the amount of runoff here is clearly enough to erode dozens of rills into the shoulder and directly to Camp Creek, as shown in the photos above. But the removal of the Mirror Lake trailhead represents an opportunity for ODOT to show it cares about more than just moving ski traffic at slightly higher speeds.

The agency also has the funds to address highway runoff into Camp Creek as part of the current widening project, as all ODOT projects include hefty contingency set-asides for just this sort of unanticipated expense — as much as one third of the overall project budget is typically “contingency”.

How to Comment

If you love Mirror Lake or care about Camp Creek, it’s worth commenting on the trailhead relocation project, if only because precious few will take the time to do so. The FHWA, ODOT and Forest Service really do take public comments into consideration, especially when it brings new information to their decisions.

MirrorLake2.21

The resort village of Government Camp from above Mirror Lake.

Here are two suggested areas to focus on your comments on:

What would you like to see in the preferred alternative (Option 4)?

Are you frustrated with the winter closure of the existing Mirror Lake trailhead? Be sure to mention this in your comments on the proposed new trailhead, as it will need to be design to be plowed and subsequently added to the Snow Park system to serve as a year-round trailhead.

Consider commenting on other trailhead amenities, as well, such as restrooms, secure bicycle parking, trash cans, drinking fountain, signage, picnic tables, a safe pedestrian crossing on Highway 26 for hikers coming from Government Camp or any other feature you’d like to see.

How would you like to see Camp Creek protected?

The project vaguely proposes to restore the existing shoulder parking area to some sort of natural condition. Consider commenting on how this restoration might work to benefit Camp Creek, which is now heavily affected by highway runoff and the impacts of parking here.

In particular, mention the need to divert highway runoff away from Camp Creek for the entire 1-mile stretch from the old trailhead to the Ski Bowl entrance. The proposed parking area restoration is the perfect opportunity to address the larger need to improve the watershed health.

You can comment to Seth Young at the Federal Highway Administration via e-mail or learn more about the project here:

Mirror Lake Trailhead Project Information:

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 Federal Highway Administration

Seth English-Young, Environmental Specialist

Western Federal Lands Highway Division

610 East Fifth Street

Vancouver, WA 98661-3801

Phone: 360-619-7803

Email: seth.english-young@dot.gov

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Subscribe to Project Newsletters

To be added to our mailing list, please send an email to seth.english-young@dot.gov.

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For U.S. Forest Service specific questions contact:

Laura Pramuk

Phone: 503-668-1791

Email: lbpramuk@fs.fed.us

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 Thanks for helping guide the future of Mirror Lake!

 

 

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.

US26Comments02

(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:

US26Comments04a

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.

US26Comments05

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.

US26Comments06

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.

US26Comments07

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.

US26Comments08

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.

US26Comments09

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.

US26Comments11

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

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.

The Tollgate Maples… and the Highway

July 17, 2011

The two remaining Tollgate maples

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

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

(download the press release here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam Barlow’s Road

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

Sam Barlow and his legendary road

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of Barlow Road… and Highway 26?

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

Highway 26 “improvement” just east of Tollgate in 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Highway 26 Widening – Part One

• Highway 26 Widening Projects – Part Two

• Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

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

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

A New Vision for the Mount Hood Loop

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

1950s Mount Hood Loop wayside at White River

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

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

Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

February 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loop highway construction in the Brightwood area in the 1930s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download a copy of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign (PDF) comments on the Highway 26 projects: click here

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

Highway 26 Widening Projects – Part Two

January 9, 2010

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

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

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

(click here for a larger map)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(click here for a larger map)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clackamas County Commission

Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC)

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

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

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

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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