Posted tagged ‘ODOT’

The High Cost of Free Parking (part 2 of 2)

April 30, 2016
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Cars now overflow the remote Vista Ridge trailhead routinely

This is the second in a two-part series that takes its name from Donald Shoup’s ground-breaking book “The High Cost of Free Parking”, first published in 2005. Shoup documents the many unintended effects of free parking in cities, and many of his proven principles could apply to trailheads in our public lands, as well.

The second part in this series explores some possible solutions for the parking crisis facing the trailheads of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, and the value of confronting the true costs of free parking to our most treasured public lands.
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No more free parking!

Does anyone really expect free parking at a Timbers or Blazers game, or drop in for dinner without a reservation at one of Portland’s finest restaurants to find a table waiting? Or be exempted from tolls when crossing the Columbia at Hood River and the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we don’t reserve the right to complain about it! That’s human nature.

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Bumper-to-bumper at Vista Ridge on a Friday

Such is the dilemma for public land managers face as they attempt to impose limits on access to our trails on Mount Hood and in the Gorge. While we can all probably agree that the impacts we now see from overuse require limits on access, we’d probably like someone else to suffer the inconvenience.

The good news is that our most overused trails are relatively few in number. Any seasoned hiker can rattle them off, as many already avoid these trails on popular weekends and seasons: Angels Rest, McCord Creek, Wahclella Falls and Eagle Creek in the Gorge are now infamous for their crowds, while Ramona Falls, Mirror Lake, Salmon River, Elk Meadows and (most recently) Tamanawas Falls on Mount Hood see overflowing weekend crowds.

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Frustrated hikers pushed out of the Wahclella Falls trailhead have resorted to parking on the I-84 off-ramp

Experienced hikers already know where the lesser-visited trails are and make a point of steering toward these places for a quieter, better outdoor experience. However, as the Portland region continues its rapid growth, even some of these “secret” trails are starting to show some strain: Herman Creek, Starvation Ridge and Gorton Creek in the Gorge and Vista Ridge, Bald Mountain and Cooper Spur have all seen spikes in use over the past decade or so as hikers seek less crowded trails.

We have met the enemy and he is… us!

The first step in adopting a trailhead parking policy to address overcrowding is to recognize the problem: when trailheads routinely overflow, it’s a problem! You can see this on weekends on every one of the overcrowded trails mentioned above. The crowding is now year-round in the Gorge and whenever the ground is snow-free up on Mount Hood.

For some trails, like Mirror Lake and Eagle Creek, the crowds extend beyond the weekends, especially on Fridays and Mondays. But even on these most heavily used trails, weekdays usually mean plenty of parking to spare, with no overflow.

This variation in day-to-day use at the most crowded trailheads is a case study for variable parking fee, with fees set higher on weekends and holidays, and lower (or not at all) on weekdays. As Donald Shoup demonstrates in “The High Cost of Free Parking”, adopting such a strategy can shift weekend and holiday use to less popular trailheads with free parking, or to non-peak days at more popular trailheads.

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The popular Wahclella Falls trailhead still has open spaces on most weekdays

If we adopted a variable pricing policy tomorrow for overused trailheads in the Gorge, we could cut weekend crowding on trails now being harmed by overuse in half, overnight. Sounds easy, right? Well, one complication comes from the public blowback that would almost certainly occur. Remember, we all reserve the right to complain when things aren’t free!

Another complication comes from the fact that several of the most popular trailheads also have heavy tourist use. Places like Horsetail Falls, Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls in “waterfall alley” are good examples where the majority of peak period visitors aren’t hikers, just people touring the Historic Columbia River Highway and walking the paved paths to the most famous roadside views.

Shared tourism and hiking trailheads should be priced, too, as they fit the same definition for overcrowding with parking spilling far beyond established parking areas. Crowding is crowding.

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The impacts of overuse in the Gorge are real and jarring. This boot path cutting a switchback on the Oneonta Creek trail formed in just the past two years.

At Multnomah Falls, a new hazard has emerged from the overflow on weekends, with visitors now parking beyond the narrow historic highway viaducts that flank the falls and lodge. Signs on the viaducts sternly warn against pedestrians walking along them, but whole families are now a common sight in the narrow viaduct vehicle lanes on busy spring and summer weekends at Multnomah Falls.

At Oneonta Gorge, the huge overflow of visitors has created a hazard for hikers attempting to scale the log jam at the mouth of the gorge, and ruined the outdoor experience for those who make it beyond the log pile with a noisy, carnival atmosphere.

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Vandals have almost completely carved up the walls of the restored Oneonta Tunnel since it opened six years ago…

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…a testament to the destructive behavior that allowing large crowds to from on our public lands can foster?

Worse, the overcrowding at Oneonta has led to a shameful degree of vandalism in the recently restored highway tunnel. Would vandals pay to park here? Perhaps, but at least the crowds that lead to that sort of destructive behavior could be prevented with managed parking. Otherwise, this precious gem will likely have to be closed to the public, once again.

At Mount Hood, overcrowding at places like the Salmon River Trail and Ramona Falls has also led to vandalism and car break-ins, in addition to heavy impacts on trails. Managed parking could greatly improve the situation here, while allowing hikers to discover the many lesser-used trails on Mount Hood that could benefit from more boot traffic while providing a far better hiking experience.

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A relatively quiet weekday at the massive (and overflowing on weekends) Ramona Falls trailhead

In many of these examples, a parking pass is already required today, but this has little effect on managing peak use. The key difference is variable pricing for parking that provides an incentive for visitors to avoid peak periods at the busiest trailheads, but gives options of other trails or off-peak days when little or no parking fee is charged. It’s a proven approach whose time as come in our most visited public lands.

…and now transit!

Since proposing a “Boot Loop” transit service on this blog four years ago, we’ve seen significant steps forward in providing transit service to Mount Hood and the Gorge. The Mount Hood Express now provides daily service from the Portland area and on the Washington side of the Gorge, transit service now connects to Stevenson, with a new shuttle to Dog Mountain.

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The new Mount Hood Express bus provides daily service to the mountain.

On the Oregon side of the Gorge, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is partway through a pilot project to bring transit service to the most heavily visited spots in the Gorge. ODOT plans to provide service from a park-and-ride location inside the Portland area to the most popular trailheads in the Gorge.

Transit service provides a needed option to driving, especially for those who do not have access to a private vehicle, but also to those who simply want to avoid the hassle of driving (and parking).

Transit is also a good counterpoint to adopting a parking strategy for the Gorge and Mount Hood, as parking fees provide an incentive to use transit during peak periods, which in turn, helps provide the critical mass to keep the service going. This is a tried and proven relationship between parking policy and transit in cities, and overdue as a strategy in our most heavily used recreation sites.

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Park transit station at Niagara Falls State Park, New York

That said, transit is mostly a way to provide another option for visitors. It simply won’t have the capacity to have much impact on overall visitation during peak periods, when parking areas at our most popular trailheads is already overflowing to two or three times the planned capacity for the trail.

How could this work?

Applying Donald Shoup’s parking management practices to recreation areas is less complicated than in an urban setting for the simple fact that there are so few places to manage, most have a single entrance point and they are all in public ownership.

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The Forest Service recently completed a major remodel of the Wahkeena Falls wayside to better manage crowds, but without managing parking, this new landscaping doesn’t stand a chance of surviving the overload.

The public reaction to actually putting a price on parking at our busiest trailheads, even during peak periods, is the driver for why we aren’t already attempting this – not the complexity of actually making it work. After all, cities around the world are already doing it, and against much more complex obstacles.

So, what are the parking management tools that could be borrowed from cities? Here are some that could work in the Gorge and on Mount Hood:

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These systems are all being used in cities today, and some combination of these practices could be applied to parking on our public lands. One challenge for public lands would be on-site enforcement, however, as this is an essential ingredient for urban parking policies.

On this point, I propose that a portion of the trailhead parking revenue could be steered toward dedicated county law enforcement to patrol parking areas. Not only would this provide an essential incentive for visitors to pay their fee, but it would also bring a much-needed security presence for busy trailheads that are increasingly targeted for car break-ins.

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The Starvation Creek wayside does triple duty as a popular trailhead, wayside for tourists and freeway rest stop. This site is a candidate for a combination of short-term timed parking and long-term fee parking.

So, how much revenue does a parking strategy generate? Well, consider that the City of Portland collects some $35 million annually in parking fees from its downtown meters, which in turn contributes to the city’s transportation budget for street maintenance. The city also collects another $7 million annually in fines for parking violators, more than enough to cover its enforcement costs.

While a parking strategy for the Gorge or Mount Hood would be unlikely to bring that much parking revenue, the Portland model does show that fee parking at the most popular trailheads in the Gorge and on Mount Hood could not only cover operational costs, but also bring new revenue for woefully underfunded trail maintenance and construction. That could be a valuable selling point to regular hikers and visitors.

Those pesky agency permits…

One of the institutional obstacles to adopting a coordinated parking strategy for the Gorge, in particular, is the mix of land management agencies involved: the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) all have some sort of parking permit that applies to some of their respective recreation sites.

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Welcome to Wahclella Falls! Forest Pass or $5 fee required… here.

The Forest Service and OPRD both have a mix of free and fee sites, with the Forest Service requiring a $30 annual Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day-use fee at places like Eagle Creek or Wahclella Falls, but no charge at its busiest locations like Multnomah Falls, Horsetail Falls and Wahkeena Falls, where tourists outnumber hikers. OPRD charges $5 day-use fees at places like Rooster Rock and Benson Lake, but not at busy trailheads like McCord Creek and Latourell Falls.

Meanwhile, on the Washington side of the Columbia, DNR charges a $30 annual fee or $10 daily fee for its Discover Pass to park at places like Beacon Rock, Hamilton Mountain and all other Washington State recreation areas.

All of these are flat-fee permits, so they do nothing to help discourage overcrowding on busy weekends and arguably encourage more use, since an annual fee provides a flat rate for unlimited visits. In fact, the annual passes do just the opposite, encouraging multiple visits for a flat rate. There’s nothing wrong with hikers spending a lot of time in the Gorge, of course, but we all share the burden when it comes to managing the impacts through trailhead parking fees.

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It’s unclear how much revenue is left for trails once administration costs for the Northwest Forest Pass are covered.

Today, trailhead permits are pitched for their ability to generate funds to build and maintain trails, but hikers are rightly skeptical about how much funding actually goes to trails. In the end, it’s not a problem of the trail passes, but rather, by the low fees relative to the trail impacts the most popular trails are experiencing.

For example, a hiker purchasing an annual permit for $30 and spending a dozen days in the Gorge or on Mount Hood each year pays just $2.50 per visit to cover their trail impacts, or less than many hikers will spend on coffee en route to the trailhead.

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Lots of passes and hassle, not much revenue for trails… and no impact on crowding.

There is little chance the states of Oregon and Washington and the U.S. Forest Service will ever join forces and create a unified trail pass, and besides, their pass systems aren’t effective at managing peak use, anyway. Instead, they should cooperate to adopt a pricing strategy for our most overused trails that is an add-on to (or replacement for) the existing pass system at these locations.

The ethics of putting a price on parking?

At this point, you might be thinking (as I generally do) that we should all enjoy free access to our public lands. Of course we should! We pay for tem every April 15, after all. Thus, adding parking fees at our overused trails will most certainly bring howls from avid hikers who spend a lot of time on the trail, and who dutifully purchase their $30 annual trail passes now.

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Would revenue from a parking policy bring more of this to the Gorge and Mount Hood? Almost certainly, if managed properly.

Yet, when overuse starts to bring the “tragedy of the commons” to our most cherished places, it’s time for all of us to step up and find a solution. Putting a price on parking is a proven and effective way to get there. More importantly, pricing is really only needed on our most heavily traveled trails. Most trails will continue to be “free”… of a parking fee, anyway.

Putting a price on parking arguably discriminates against people with limited incomes or who are unable to visit in off-peak periods when little or no fee is required. Land managers will therefore need to consider ways to ensure that everyone can visit our public lands, no matter their ability to pay. But such programs are already in place in several state and National Parks, and could be easily included in a Gorge or Mount Hood parking strategy.

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That’s no road – it’s what the Angels Rest trail has become in recent years, thanks to massive overuse from a complete lack of parking management at the trailhead.

Today, land managers are already beginning to put restrictions on overflow parking in the Gorge and on Mount Hood. It’s a good first step, but not enough to address peak demand on weekends and holidays, and in the end will mostly frustrate visitors who have arrived expecting place to park.

The next step for our public agencies is to start managing parking, itself. It’s long past time to try it in the Gorge and on Mount Hood, for the sake of our trails and most treasured places.

The High Cost of Free Parking (Part 1 of 2)

March 31, 2016
The notorious Angels Rest Trailhead on a typical winter weekend

The notorious Angels Rest Trailhead on a typical winter weekend

This is a two-part article that takes its name from Donald Shoup’s ground-breaking book “The High Cost of Free Parking”, first published in 2005. Shoup documents the many unintended effects of free parking in cities, and many of the principles could apply to our public lands, as well.

The first part of this series examines the parking crisis facing the trailheads of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, while the second part will explore some possible solutions — none of them easy to realize until the true costs of free parking are confronted.
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Wall-to-wall hikers are the norm on Dog Mountain in spring (The Oregonian)

Wall-to-wall hikers are the norm on Dog Mountain in spring (The Oregonian)

The Forest Service announced plans this month to redesign the huge parking area at the Dog Mountain trailhead, on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, to address safety issues. The Forest Service plans to stripe the currently unmanaged, free-for-all paved shoulder with designed parking spaces for 75 cars. This is a significant reduction from the roughly 200 cars that pack into the trailhead on busy spring weekends.

To compensate for the reduced parking, the Forest Service is teaming up with Skamania County’s Gorge West End Transit (WET) bus to provide a shuttle from Stevenson to Dog Mountain. The shuttle will run Saturdays and Sundays from April 16 to June 12, the peak season for the hike when the wildflower meadows that make the hike famous are at their peak. The shuttles will run 10 times daily from 10:15 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the one-way fare will be a modest $1.00.

A rare quiet day at the huge Dog Mountain trailhead parking area (The Oregonian)

A rare quiet day at the huge Dog Mountain trailhead parking area (The Oregonian)

The predictable headline in The Oregonian story covering of the announcement screamed “Already hate parking at Dog Mountain? It’s about to get worse”, and the reaction from hikers in social media has pretty much echoed that simplistic, knee-jerk reaction.

But will it really be worse? Seventy-five cars at the redesigned trailhead still translates into roughly 150 people on the trail at any given time — hardly a wilderness experience, and a huge improvement over the 400+ hikers you might currently expect along the 7-mile circuit to the summit from trailhead parking capacity, alone. Some hikers will use the shuttles, but more likely, people will simply go elsewhere — a point I’ll cover in the second part in this series.

Hikers are usually people who love nature, so it’s fair to assume that few hikers would want to see their public lands trampled by unmanaged mobs. And yet, much of the reaction to limiting the number of cars that can park at Dog Mountain has been just the opposite — anger and outrage at any sort of limit on parking or access.

So, why this disconnect? We’ll explore that question in the second part of the series, too, as well as the necessary solutions to overwhelming demand for trails in the Gorge and on Mount Hood in the second part of this series.

First, a closer look at the problems that exist in today’s status quo.

A Typical Weekend…

It’s not news to Gorge regulars that weekends along the Historic Columbia River Highway in “Waterfall Alley” have become outlandish traffic jams, with cars parked anywhere they will fit, and trails literally overrun with thousands of hikers. Local photographer T.J. Thorne filmed a clip in the vicinity of Oneonta Gorge that gives a flavor of what our precious Gorge experience has devolved:

This isn’t fun for anyone. It’s a tragedy of the commons in the making, and tarnishes what could (and should) be a wonderful outdoor experience for people looking for some relief from their daily, urban routines.

How did it get this bad? Rapid growth in the Portland metropolitan is part of the answer: while the Gorge trail system is only slightly larger than it was in 1940, the Portland-Vancouver region has exploded from just over 500,000 residents then to more than 2 million today. Compounding the growth is Portland’s emerging lifestyle economy, whereby new industries locating here are increasingly do so because their workers want easy access to our amazing outdoors.

So, one answer is more trails — something I promote regularly in this blog, and something that can be done responsibly and in a way that greatly expands opportunities for people to have a positive outdoor experience. But getting there will take major reforms in how the Forest Service and Columbia Gorge Commission, in particular, think about recreation (both are surprisingly hostile to new trails) as well as restoring funds to gutted federal trail budgets.

Forest Service trail legend Bruce Dungey and his crews are struggling to stem the damage from overuse of Gorge trails

Forest Service trail legend Bruce Dungey and his crews are struggling to stem the damage from overuse of Gorge trails

The federal budget problem is real: consider that Forest Service crews in the Gorge are now about one-fourth the size they were as recently as 1990, and the scope of the trail funding crisis is clear enough. Without volunteers from organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), Washington Trails Association, Friends of the Gorge and the Pacific Crest Trail Association our trails would literally be falling apart and impassable from fallen trees and slides. Mount Hood faces a similar backlog and dependence on volunteers to simply keep the trails open.

Not Playing Well Together?

A good share of the overcrowding and also comes from a failure of public land agencies to work together on common solutions. This is especially true in the Gorge, but also on Mount Hood, where the key players are the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) .

Consider the trailhead parking policy along on the Oregon side of the Gorge: parking at Latourell Falls, Shepperd’s Dell, Wahkeena Falls, Multnomah Falls, Oneonta Gorge, Horsetail Falls, Elowah Falls, Starvation Creek and Mitchell Point is free, no permit required.

The small, free parking area at Elowah Falls is overflowing by dozens of cars, even on rainy winter days

The small, free parking area at Elowah Falls is overflowing by dozens of cars, even on rainy winter days

Meanwhile, parking at Wahclella Falls, Bridge of the Gods, Eagle Creek, Wyeth and Herman Creek requires a Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annual pass or $5 day pass). This can’t be explained simply by state vs. federal management differences, as the Forest Service operates several of the trailheads where free parking is provided, and the state operates both free and fee-based sites, with State Parks at Rooster Rock, Benson Lake and Viento requiring a $5.00 day-use free.

On the Washington side, trailheads provided by the DNR at places like Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain require a special DNR permit ($30 annual pass or $10 day pass), while Forest Service trailheads like Dog Mountain require a Northwest Forest Pass.

Confused yet?

It gets worse: on Mount Hood, the Forest Service is well down the troubling path of commercializing both campgrounds and trailheads to “concessionaires”, who in turn, get to set their own fees for day use, which includes parking at trailheads. Several of these trailheads are also posted with a Northwest Forest Pass requirement, so it’s unclear if paying one is the same as paying the other, or even whether being ticketed by a “concessionaire” has any legal standing.

The price to park at Mount Hood’s snow park lots is the same any day of the week, overloading parking areas and the Loop Highway

The price to park at Mount Hood’s snow park lots is the same any day of the week, overloading parking areas and the Loop Highway

Meanwhile, show up at the same trailhead on Mount Hood between November and April, and it might be a Snow Park site, which has its own permit, operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation ($25 annual or $4 day). Just to make things interesting, “agents” who sell Snow Park permits can charge an additional service fee — something you learn when you stop by one of the grocery stores or service stations that offer these permits.

This amazing cocktail of free and permit parking is a major point of annoyance to hikers, both for the inherent confusion and the actual cost of buying multiple passes to use trails in the same area. That’s bad public relations for the land agencies and bad news for the public. But the tangle of policies and permits is especially bad for tourism, with visitors unfamiliar with the area forced to decipher these overlapping regulations.

Dumb Fees vs. Smart Fees

As frustrating as this crazy quilt of fees (or lack of fees) is for the public, the effect is worse when you consider that most of the permitting program do little to actually manage crowding and protect trails from overuse. Why? Because they are all flat fees that don’t recognize that demand for recreation fluctuates wildly by season and day of week on both Mount Hood and in the Gorge.

The Forest Service will soon build this new trailhead for popular Mirror Lake - a chance to try a different parking approach?

The Forest Service will soon build this new trailhead for popular Mirror Lake – a chance to try a different parking approach?

In The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup describes how building enough free parking to meet narrow peaks in demand results in oversized, mostly empty parking lots while promoting even worse crowding during peak periods. And yet, there are fairly straightforward tools for managing parking to avoid these effects on our cities.

Much of what Shoup proposes for cities could be adapted for trails and other activities on our public lands, and that will be the focus of the second part of this series: a set of specific actions that could not only make the outdoor experience for everyone better, but also protect the scenery and trails that we go to the outdoors to experience, and ensure that is will still be here for future generations to enjoy.

To be continued…

A New Vision for Mirror Lake (Part 1 of 3)

October 31, 2015
Summer evening view of Mount Hood from Mirror Lake

Summer evening view of Mount Hood from Mirror Lake

Big changes are coming to the Mirror Lake Trail on Mount Hood, perhaps the single most visited trail on the mountain. This is the first of three articles on the future of Mirror Lake, and the need for a broader vision to guide recreation in the area.
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As part of the unfortunate widening of the Mount Hood Highway currently underway west of Government Camp (see this article for more on the subject), the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to close the existing, historic trailhead for the Mirror Lake Trail.

ODOT claims safety is the chief concern, a point I will visit later in this series. For now, though, it looks like our highway department will close yet another roadside trailhead in a campaign to gradually morph the Mount Hood Highway into full-fledged freeway.

Going back to the beginning…

Just as Mount Hood generally bears the development pressures of being an hour from Portland, and along transportation corridor that dates to the 1840s, Mirror Lake has long carried the burden of being the closest mountain lake to Portland, and the first easily accessible trailhead along the loop highway.

Because of its proximity, the lake shows up on the earliest maps of the Government Camp area, when the Mount Hood Loop Highway had a very rough, early alignment and was not yet a loop. The original Skyline Trail map (below) from the early 1900s shows Mirror Lake just west of the new trail, and a version of the early loop road before the Laurel Hill switchbacks were built.

1920s-era map of Mount Hood and the Government Camp area

1920s-era map of Mount Hood and the Government Camp area

By the early 1920s, the effort to complete the loop highway was in full swing, including the graceful switchbacks that scaled Laurel Hill (below), the spot where Oregon Trail immigrants had to lower their wagons with ropes because of the steepness of the terrain. Surprisingly, a formal trail to Mirror Lake had not yet been constructed by this time.

1920s map of the first paved alignment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Government Camp

1920s map of the first paved alignment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Government Camp

Other maps from the early 1900s (below) tell another story about Mirror Lake: it was within the northern extent of the Sherar Burn, a massive fire that had destroyed forests from the Salmon River to Camp Creek. As recently as the 1980s, bleached snags from the fire were standing throughout the Mirror Lake area.

1920s map showing the Sherar Burn extent in the Mirror Lake area

1920s map showing the Sherar Burn extent in the Mirror Lake area

The Sherar Burn of the mid-1800s created vast tracts of huckleberries across the area, and during the early days of the highway, huckleberry pickers were a common sight, selling coffee cans of fresh berries to mountain visitors (below).

Huckleberry pickers in the 1930s at the Little Zigzag River bridge, below Laurel Hill

Huckleberry pickers in the 1930s at the Little Zigzag River bridge, below Laurel Hill

Mirror Lake, itself, looked quite different in the 1920s, too. Today’s tree-rimmed lake was mostly surrounded by burned snags and fields of beargrass and huckleberry in the 1920s (below).

Mirror Lake in the late 1920s

Mirror Lake in the late 1920s

Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, a new trail was constructed from the new highway to Mirror Lake. The trail began at a sharp turn on the old highway, traversing above the north shoulder of Yocum Falls on Camp Creek, crossing to the south side of the creek at the spot where the modern trailhead is located today (see maps below).

This lower section (from the bend in the old highway to the modern trailhead) of the original Mirror Lake trail was destroyed just 25 years later, when the modern highway grade cut through the area. This portion of the old highway still exists in this area, accessible from the Laurel Hill historic landmark pullout (currently closed because of the highway widening).

1930s map of the original Mirror Lake Trail

1930s map of the original Mirror Lake Trail

1930s map of the Mirror Lake Trail and surrounding area

1930s map of the Mirror Lake Trail and surrounding area

When the original Mirror Lake Trail was built, the trailhead was located just a few yards beyond an impressive roadside viewpoint of Yocum Falls on Camp Creek (below). Today, the forest has recovered so completely in this part of the Sherar Burn that this viewpoint is completely overgrown. It is still possible to visit Yocum Falls from the old highway grade, though, by following rough use trails.

Yocum Falls as it once appeared from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

Yocum Falls as it once appeared from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

The lower section of the original trail seems to have followed the rambling extent of Yocum Falls quite closely before the trail was destroyed by the modern highway. While the current trailhead gives a brief glimpse of the top of the falls, the old route seems to have provided a nice view of the falls since lost (more on this topic in the third part in this series).

Today, the modern Mirror Lake trailhead continues to provide a popular drop-in hike for families and casual hikers, but the convenience comes at a price. The shoulder parking area is large enough to allow up to 100 cars, and on busy weekends, still more hikers park along the highway all the way to Government Camp, walking the highway shoulder to reach the trailhead.

The Mirror Lake Trail was never designed to handle this much traffic, nor is the small lake able to handle so many visitors. These concerns are part of the Forest Service thinking in why a new trailhead should be constructed.

Camp Creek suffers from its close, unprotected proximity to Highway 26 and the Mirror Lake Trail parking.

Camp Creek suffers from its close, unprotected proximity to Highway 26 and the Mirror Lake Trail parking.

Meanwhile, the 1950s-era trailhead pullout in use today was built at a time when little thought was given to environmental impacts. As a result, highway fill was pushed to the edge of Camp Creek, exposing an important salmon and steelhead stream to heavy loads of silt and pollution from parked vehicles. A visit to Yocum Falls, just downstream, reveals a troubling amount of road debris and the sharp odor of pollution in an otherwise healthy stream corridor.

While these growing impacts on Mirror Lake and Camp Creek aren’t the reason ODOT gives for closing the current Mirror Lake Trailhead, they are compelling arguments to consider.
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The next part of this 3-part series will take a closer look at ODOT’s arguments for closing the existing trailhead and the Forest Service proposal for a new trailhead located east of the existing access.

Cool news in the summer heat!

July 31, 2015
Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

In my last post, I alluded to some pending good news on the WyEast beat, and in this article I’ll share a trio of pleasantly cool developments for our otherwise scorching summer:

Punchbowl Park Project

Starting off with the big news, the folks behind the Punchbowl Park project learned in late June that they had been awarded a State of Oregon grant of $470,000. These funds will make it possible for Hood River County to acquire the 103-acre Punchbowl Park site in partnership with the Western Rivers Conservancy.

Kayakers at the Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

Kayakers at the Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

This is a huge step forward for this citizen-led movement, a major grass-roots effort guided by Heather Staten of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC). Now that the future of the site is secure, Heather and her organization will be working with the county to begin building a recreational trail network through the new park for the public to enjoy.

Map of proposed trail network at Punchbowl Park

Map of proposed trail network at Punchbowl Park

[click here for a larger map]

Much more work lies ahead for Punchbowl Park, and I’ll continue to post updates here on new developments and opportunities to get involved in the trail building over the coming years. Kudos to Heather and those who pitched in for the tireless work that made this happen. Bringing this area into public ownership is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one that will pay off for many generations to come!

You can already explore Punchbowl Park in its undeveloped state now by following the maze of user trails that already exist there. You will likely notice signs of recent logging — part of an operation to remove diseased trees from the forest in hopes of limiting their spread. The long-term plan for the new park is to let nature take over, and allow the forest to recover to a more natural state after a century of timber harvesting.

Restore Warren Falls

Warren Creek canyon (and falls) from across the Columbia

Warren Creek canyon (and falls) from across the Columbia

For a second bit of cool news, we move west to Warren Falls. In mid-July, I sent a “Hail Mary” plea to local legislators in the Hood River area asking for their (divine?) intervention to somehow prod the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) into decommissioning the Warren Creek diversion tunnel and restoring Warren Falls. I’ve posted several articles on this proposal (as well as this Oregon Field Guide story) in hopes of doing this needed restoration work when the state will have heavy equipment in the area as part of the next phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, which will soon cross Warren Creek.

My plea for help was answered promptly and with enthusiasm by State Senator Chuck Thomsen of Hood River. Senator Thomsen agreed to me at the Starvation Creek Wayside early one morning last week for an inspection of the Warren Falls site and a briefing on my proposal to restore the falls. After our tour, he offered to write a letter to both ODOT and the Governor’s office asking them to put Warren Falls on their to-do list. Boom!

The author with Senator Chuck Thomsen at Warren Creek

The author with Senator Chuck Thomsen at Warren Creek

More to come, but simply contacting a legislator has already triggered a call from an ODOT surrogate, essentially asking me to cease and desist in my efforts. I assured them that I had no desire to delay the larger state trail project, but still believe the agency should (and can) do right by undoing their illegal diversion of Warren Creek — and restoring Warren Falls in the process.

I’m convinced that if ODOT channeled the spirit of Samuel Lancaster when he designed the historic highway a century ago, they would easily discover both the will and funding needed to make this happen. And if they do, Sam Lancaster will surely approve — wherever he might be!

If you’re interested in more detail, here’s a (large) PDF of my Hail Mary! letter to Senator Thomsen.

Palmer Glacier gets a Reprieve

Like tractors on a corn field, snowcats plow (and salt) the Palmer Glacier for summer skiers

Like tractors on a corn field, snowcats plow (and salt) the Palmer Glacier for summer skiers

Five years ago, I posted this article challenging the Timberline Ski Resort on their practice of “conditioning” the Palmer Glacier with the equivalent of 500 tons (picture 500 pickup loads) of salt on the glacier each summer.

To defend the practice, the resort points to water quality testing downstream showing only “reasonably elevated levels” of salt in the tributaries that feed into the Salmon River, as if there is something reasonable about purposely pouring salt into one of our premier rivers. The Salmon River is not only treasured for its epic waterfalls and rugged gorge, it’s also a wild and scenic river and among the few salmon and steelhead streams in the Oregon Cascades with no downstream dams to block fish migration. There’s a lot at stake, here.

The source of the Salmon River at the terminus of the Palmer Glacier

The source of the Salmon River at the terminus of the Palmer Glacier

The Forest Service, meanwhile, is also of the “well, let’s see what happens” mindset, and officially permits the Timberline resort to keep dumping tons of salt on Mount Hood most fragile glacier. And yes, it’s still a glacier in name, though you may have noticed that the official media term coming from both the Timberline Resort and the Forest Service is the dismissive “Palmer Snowfield”. I can only guess the thinking behind this, but it’s hard to imagine it not being an attempt to downplay the impacts of salting the glacier.

Yup, still the Palmer Glacier…

Yup, still the Palmer Glacier…

Meanwhile, the Palmer Glacier continues to shrink, along with the rest of our Cascade glaciers in this period of global climate change. The Timberline Resort actually posted a letter to President Obama on their website proclaiming their “strong support for policies to address climate change”, all the while purposely accelerating the melting of their bread-and-butter glacier. Given the contradiction, it’s fairly easy to differentiate the empty rhetoric from the short-term profit motives.

How salty is this runoff from the Palmer Glacier? Enough for the Timberline Resort to be on the defensive, apparently.

How salty is this runoff from the Palmer Glacier? Enough for the Timberline Resort to be on the defensive, apparently.

Ski areas don’t just bring invisible pollution to the Salmon River -- here, a broken boundary pole and ski trash litter the Salmon River headwaters.

Ski areas don’t just bring invisible pollution to the Salmon River — here, a broken boundary pole and ski trash litter the Salmon River headwaters.

The greatest tragedy is that we own the land and the glacier, not the resort. They’re simply leasing the space. So, after the glacier is gone, we’ll own the polluted alpine slopes left behind by the salting practice — as the effects of salt pollution are long-term in nature, and of little concern for ski resort balance sheets or Forest Service concession permits.

So, where’s the cool news in this story? Just that the Timberline resort is closing down the Palmer ski season this weekend — a full month before their advertised “June through Labor Day” summer season concludes.

The Palmer Glacier won't miss those snowcats, skiers or tons of salt this August!

The Palmer Glacier won’t miss those snowcats, skiers or tons of salt this August!

This bit of good news for the Palmer Glacier and Salmon River is real: it translates into hundreds of tons of salt that won’t be spread on the glacier over the month of August this year, and that in turn equals less salt in the river and fragile alpine slopes in a dangerously low water year. It might even mean less melting of the glacier than might happen otherwise.

So, it’s cool news of a sort… and might just help keep the Palmer Glacier around just a bit longer.

An Overdue Warren Falls Update (…and a bombshell!)

April 30, 2015
Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Time is running out on the Restore Warren Falls! project. This summer the next phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail project will begin construction of a segment that will pass right in front of the falls.

The new trail construction in the area is not simply an ideal opportunity to finally undo what the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) did to this magnificent waterfall 76 years ago — it’s probably the only opportunity in our lifetimes.

In that spirit, I thought an update on the project and Warren Falls was in order — plus share a bit of a bombshell that was sent to me recently!

Checking in on Warren Falls

First, a quick visit to Warren Creek: in mid-April I made a couple visits to Warren Falls as part of my twice-annual Friends of the Gorge hikes. As has become the norm in recent years, the natural falls clearly flowed again this winter during heavy runoff that overwhelmed the diversion weir at the top of the falls.

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

These regular overflows make more sense when you look at the condition of the weir — the following photos from the top of the falls show just how clogged the giant “trash rack” has become, and also how badly the upper lip of the rack has been exposed as the concrete diversion dam continues to erode:

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The Friends of the Gorge hikers always marvel at the strange, unsettling scene of a dry waterfall. Like most who visit Warren Falls, many are also saddened by the idea that the ODOT could have been so cavalier in altering such a beautiful scene at Warren Creek so grotesquely.

While the original decision to divert the falls can arguably be blamed on the thinking of the era (late 1930s), I would submit that allowing this tragic mistake to continue to exist is equally cavalier and dismissive of the natural landscape at Warren Creek. Thus, my campaign to attach the burden of undoing the mess at Warren Falls to ODOT — and in particular, their looming state trail construction project that will soon begin in the area.

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

While researching Warren Falls over the winter, I finally found a definitive story on the official naming of the creek. The name “Warren” comes from Warren “Barney” Cooper, and early forest ranger in the Mount Hood area (and part of the Cooper family described in this previous article).

This Oregonian article documents (in the last paragraph) when Warren Cooper’s name finally became the official name of the creek in 1948, though it had been in unofficial use for years:

WarrenFallsUpdate07

So, we now learn that Warren Lake and creek were once called “Warm Lake” and “Warm Creek”. Warren Lake is situated on a high, rocky shoulder of Mount Defiance, and shallow enough to be “warm” in late summer, so that could be the simplest explanation for this early name.

The name “Warren” appears on maps and early documents from well before this 1948 decision, so the timing of the article is interesting, especially so long after Warren Cooper’s death in 1920. Was the naming in 1948 simply cartographic housekeeping or an overdue recognition of a pioneering forest ranger by those who followed him?

As always, every answer brings a few new questions!

Friends of Warren Falls… are everywhere!

Since the Oregon Field Guide story on the Restore Warren Falls! project first aired the fall of 2012 (watch the documentary here), several anonymous “friends” of Warren Falls have quietly contacted me with offers to help.

OFG's Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

OFG’s Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

Most surprising among the proposals were offers to simply “monkey-wrench” the weir at the top of the falls to speed up its demise! While I’m sympathetic to both the frustration and impatience behind the monkey-wrenchers out there, I’m also concerned that tinkering with the weir might actually be illegal (though it’s hard to see how a decaying structure that no public agency will claim responsibility for could somehow also become the basis for legal action..?)

More importantly, I’m concerned that formally removing the weir and associated debris will become increasingly difficult if the structure is further compromised. I’ve therefore thanked the monkey-wrenchers for their passion, but encouraged them to be patient and allow the slow wheels of government to turn a bit further..!

…and the bombshell…

Another piece of information that trickled in from an anonymous attorney and friend of Warren Falls is found in plain sight: in the Oregon Revised Statutes. Specifically, ORS 538.200, which exists solely to prohibit the diversion of “streams forming waterfalls near the Columbia River Highway” for “any purpose whatsoever”.

While quite clear in its intent, this might seem like a very general reference. But the statute (which was signed into law in the early 1900s, before the Warren Falls diversion) goes on to list each of the streams and waterfalls that fall under this protection — including Warren Creek, in ORS 538.200(26)!

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

What does this new information mean? For starters, it means that ODOT — at the time, called the Oregon Highway Division — broke the law in 1939 when it blasted a diversion tunnel and erected a dam and weir to pipe Warren Creek away from its natural falls and streambed. That is quite clear.

What is unknown is whether the ODOT decision to defy the law in the late 1930s was brazen in its intent. As hard as that possibility is to believe, it is also very hard to believe the agency wouldn’t have known about the law, given that it had been enacted just a few years prior the Warren Falls diversion project being concocted in the early 1930s — and was specifically aimed at the state’s premier highway of the era.

What does it mean today? In my view, it means that ODOT now has BOTH a legal and ethical responsibility to undo what it has done to Warren Falls. That couldn’t be more clear.

The End Game?

For the past four years I’ve been beating the drum to connect the restoration of Warren Falls to the massive, multi-million dollar Historic Columbia River Highway state trail project, without much success. So far I have:

• been turned away by both Oregon State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, both claiming the falls lies on the other agency’s property (though it quite clearly falls on Oregon State Parks land)

• unsuccessfully pitched the cause to three of the premier conservation groups active in the Gorge, including on-site tours, but did not persuade any of the groups to adopt the cause.

• unsuccessfully made the case twice before the Historic Columbia River Highway steering committee, with some sympathetic interest from the committee, but a deep reluctance to seriously consider the idea. It was added as an item “for consideration” — but later dropped due to cost concerns.

• successfully pitched the idea to the producers of Oregon Field Guide story, and while ODOT staff involved in that effort were sympathetic to the state of Warren Falls, the publicity created by the story did not change their recommendations to their steering committee for any further consideration of restoring the falls.

• posted a string of articles on this blog and started a Facebook group two years ago to continue to rally the cause, but these efforts haven’t made a noticeable dent at ODOT, either.

We are now in the end game, and I don’t think the Warren Falls will ever be restored if the work doesn’t happen when ODOT has heavy equipment in the area later this year. After that, it will most likely be up to Mother Nature, and that’s would be such a sad commentary to future generations when they judge the state of the world we choose to leave them.

From the beginning, I have argued that restoring the falls isn’t about money, but rather, about responsibility. ODOT created the mess that now exists at Warren Creek, and for a whole variety of safety, ethical, environmental — and now, legal — reasons that I’ve argued over the years, it’s time for the agency to own up to their responsibility.

No fooling, ODOT has $2 million annually in a “contingency” fund for exactly the kind of work that restoring Warren Falls would entail — and just allocated another half-million dollars to cover additional costs for the state trail project in the Warren Creek area.

It turns out the money has always been there, too. On April 1, ODOT quietly pulled nearly a half-million dollars in “contingency” funds into this latest phase of the state trail as a consent item before the Oregon Transportation Commission. The new money is for a previously unplanned bridge over nearby Gorton Creek, a worthy addition at the east end of the current phase of construction. Warren Falls could be restored for a fraction of that amount – if only the will and sense of agency responsibility at ODOT existed.

My next efforts will focus beyond ODOT, given my fruitless efforts to work with the agency. At the top of my list of arguments is the newly discovered fact that the agency violated state law when they built the project in 1939 — underscoring the notion that ODOT has both ethical and legal obligations to own up to restoring the falls. The agency clearly has funding available for worthy efforts like this one if the desire exists. I will be making that argument, as well.

There's still time to realize this vision… but not much.

There’s still time to realize this vision… but not much.

I’ll post a follow-ups to article with more details soon, and especially how you might be able to help get the restoration of Warren Falls unstuck from our state bureaucracy. Most of all, a big thanks to all who have offered to help — and as always, thank you reading this blog and caring about Mount Hood and the Gorge!

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!