(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)
On Friday, the Columbia River Gorge put its best face forward, and the timing couldn’t have been better.
That’s because about 150 local and regional policymakers and assorted bigwigs from Oregon and Washington pedaled from Corbett to Cascade Locks and got an up-close look at the Gorge’s natural splendor. And best of all, the 25-mile ride was done without ever setting tires on Interstate 84 — a feat that was only possible because the group was given early access to a newly completed section of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail that will be open to the public next month.
As it does every year, this invite-only “Policymakers’ Ride” (organized by Cycle Oregon and sometimes referred to as the “Voyage of the Visionaries”) aims to give key decision makers the knowledge and inspiration they need to push for better bike bikeways around the region. Friday’s ride focused solely on the Historic Highway where riders were treated to jaw-dropping views of the Gorge and great riding thanks to exciting progress on sections of the State Trail open only to bikers and walkers.
The story of the Historic Highway, we learned Friday from opening remarks by Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel, began nearly 100 years ago when highway builder Samuel Lancaster started work on what became known as the “King of the Roads.” It was America’s first officially designated Scenic Highway and Lancaster described his approach to its design by saying he “laid the road lightly on the land.”
After McKeel’s remarks, Cycle Oregon co-founder Jonathan Nicholas stood atop a rock wall at Women’s Forum and with the sun peeking through morning clouds deep down on the Gorge’s eastern horizon, recalled that moment in 1913 when Lancaster and his crews began their work: “Exactly 100 years ago, a group of visionaries stood here and decided to make the Gorge accessible to everyone,” he said. Nicholas didn’t say it directly, but his intent was clear: He wanted the assembled politicians, transportation officials, and advocates to see themselves as today’s visionaries who will grab hold of Lancaster’s vision and restore his old road.
Today, many people aren’t even aware that the Historic Highway exists. Its successor, I-84, carries all the traffic. But unlike the classic curves and beauty of its predecessor, I-84 barrels through the Gorge on a straight and fast path with the brutalist form that was common during the Interstate Highway boom of the 1970s. Now, in a symbolic stroke of highway design coming full circle, the Oregon Department of Transportation is committed to restoring the old highway.
And as we cherished each mile on Saturday, it was easy to see why this has become such a passion project for our state’s transportation agency.
After a breathtaking sunrise breakfast at Women’s Forum, we pedaled east on the Historic Highway to Wahkeena Falls. Over the gurgling of Wahkeena Creek, we listened to state parks officials share the importance of recreation in the Gorge. Oregon Parks & Recreation District Manager Kevin Price pedaled alongside us the entire day. At Wahkeena, he told the crowd how he encourages visitors to bike on the Historic Highway: “I sell it to families [as an activity] all the time,” he shared, “What family with kids wouldn’t want to ride on a road like this in comfort without all those motor vehicles?”
Our next stop was the J.B. Yeon Trail Head, at the beginning of a brand new, $8 million, 1.6 mile section of carfree path that runs between McCord and Moffett creeks. Before becoming the first members of the public to roll on this new path (and cross over the new McCord Creek bridge) we heard from ODOT Region 1 Manager Jason Tell call the project “a huge milestone” that’s “worth every penny.” And with Saturday’s group of power brokers there to see it in person, Tell was confident about the project’s future now that, “We have the the policy army on our side.”
At the Yeon trailhead we also heard from mayors of four towns along the Historic Highway route: Tom Cramblett, mayor of Cascade Locks; Steve Lawrence, mayor of The Dalles; Doug Daoust, mayor of Troutdale; and Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz. Each one was eager to share how they think bicycle tourism will be a boon for their cities.
Daoust, 61, who shared with us that he hadn’t ridden a bike for 25 years prior to Saturday, said Troutdale is fully on board. “We’re working on bike tourism, we’re getting more racks downtown,” he said. “And this project is key to connecting us all.” Mayor Cramblett from Cascade Locks said bicycling in his small riverside town is “just growing and growing and growing.” “For all these communities here,” Cramblett said, “the biking part of the economy is going to be huge… That’s the future for us.”
“We’re going to open our arms wide and welcome all the cyclists of the world.”
— Steve Lawrence, mayor of The Dalles
Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz knows exactly what bicycling means to his city. “It’s not coincidence,” he told the crowd, “that a town of 7,000 has four full-service bike shops.” Babitz believes once the Historic Highway and State Trail are completed and people can bike safely on the 73-mile stretch between Troutdale and The Dalles, “We will see bike tourism on a worldwide scale.” And Steve Lawrence of The Dalles said his city will be ready for it. “We’re having a summit next month to make The Dalles adapted to cyclists,” he said, “We’re going to open our arms wide and welcome all the cyclists of the world.”
Sure, these are politicians at a public ribbon-cutting; but their optimism isn’t artificial nor is it based merely in hopes and dreams. A recent study by Travel Oregon found that the Gorge already rakes in $46 million a year in bicycle-related tourism (out of Oregon’s total annual haul of $400 million).
On Saturday’s ride, there was a palpable sense of celebration at this project’s progress, yet a clear sense of urgency to finish the 10 mile gap between Wyeth and Hood River that still remains. I’ve never seen ODOT more committed to such a non-traditional road project. Nearly all of their top brass did the ride on Saturday — from Highway Division Administrator Paul Mather and Transportation Development Division Administrator Jerri Brohard, to Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Pat Egan and we were even joined by Governor Kitzhaber’s new transportation policy adviser Karmen Fore (who I learned is an avid rider that often knocks out rides well over 100 miles at a time).
Jeanette Kloos, a former Gorge district manager for ODOT, knows this project better than anyone. She’s been working on it since the 1980s and back in 2007 she gave me a guided tour of the amazing bike path between Hood River and Mosier. At Saturday’s event, she said the final pieces to the puzzle will take “an extreme amount of work.” The remaining sections were even hard for Sam Lancaster, she shared, and he too finished them last.
If that final 10 miles of this project are to ever be built in time for the road’s centennial celebration in 2016 (that’s ODOT’s goal), the people on Saturday’s ride have to fight for it. I say fight, because at an estimated $47.5 million in construction costs (that includes a new tunnel through Mitchell Point and it’s nearly twice as much as the total amount spent on the project so far), the funding won’t be easy to come by. That’s why ODOT and Cycle Oregon’s effort to host this year’s ride in the Gorge was so brilliant: After a sunset cruise and lunch aboard the Portland Spirit Sternwheeler in Cascade Locks capped a perfect day of riding, networking, and inspiring, it’s a fight dozens more very powerful and influential Oregonians are now eager to take on.
— For more information about how to get involved with this effort, check out the Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway.