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Riding ODOT’s Columbia Gorge “Not-So” Express Bus

Subscriber Post by Adam on July 10th, 2017 at 4:26 pm

“The new service has potential but unfortunately misses the mark at nearly every step of the way.”

This past weekend, my family and I decided to try out ODOT’s new Columbia Gorge Express bus and spend a few hours at Multnomah Falls. After our experience, I unfortunately cannot personally recommend this service.

We decided to take the 12:55 pm bus from Gateway TC. Getting to Gateway car-free already meant a bus and a train from where we live. Unfortunately, our Columbia Gorge Express bus was 20 minutes late – not arriving until 1:15 and departing around 1:20. Tickets are purchased pre-paid but don’t actually guarantee you a spot on the bus. After a minor hassle with the ticket checker about the tickets being purchased for the wrong day (the website makes you pick a day, but specifies the ticket is in fact good for any day in the current season), we were aboard.

The bus first made a stop at Rooster Rock park to pick up and drop off passengers. There was not room for everyone, so many were left waiting for the next bus. After this ten minute stop, we were finally on our way to the falls. Upon coming up to the falls, our bus driver informed us that since the parking lot at Multnomah Falls was full, that we would not be able to exit the highway here, as there would be no room for the bus to turn around. We instead had to make a 20 minute detour to the next exit, get off the highway, then get back on the highway so that we were facing the correct direction.

Boarding the bus back was a confusing mess. We headed to the bus stop area, only to be informed by an ODOT employee that the line was further back. Schedules are posted at the stop but don’t bother using them, since the bus was nowhere near on any semblance of a schedule all day. We waited for 15 minutes before boarding the bus (that was either 15 minutes early or 35 minutes late, depending on how you read the schedule). Again, you are not guaranteed a spot on the bus back, so on busy days you might have to wait a good hour before getting on a bus. On the way back we predictably got stuck in traffic on I-84. Overall, we spent a total of four hours in transit, door-to-door, due to the bus’ lateness and detour, and TriMet’s infrequent Sunday schedule. Perhaps if you are staying somewhere overnight, the hassles might be worth it, but for a day trip, the bus was not very convenient.

The new service has potential but unfortunately misses the mark at nearly every step of the way. It was late, slow, and not well signed. If ODOT is serious about continuing this popular service, they should make the following changes:

    1. Adhere to the damn schedule. 20 minutes late is completely unacceptable for a bus that runs every 30 minutes. Either build in traffic time to the timetables or find some way to improve on-time performance.
    2. Add a dedicated bus turnaround area. The fact that a full parking lot at the falls caused the bus to make a 20 minute detour is unacceptable. This is not going to convince people not to drive and is yet another example of caving to auto interests over all else. Just remove a few parking spaces if needed. Or maybe start charging for parking to better manage demand.
    3. Better signage and waiting area at Multnomah Falls. The waiting area is a dingey pedestrian underpass under I-84. A higher-quality shelter with daylight visible would be welcome here.
    4. Integrate Hop Fastpass. Having to purchase your tickets separately just seems so arcane. We now have a really nice unified transit account for our region. This should be a priority in the next year not just for ODOT, but for all agencies operating in the Portland metro area. This should especially apply to the agencies that opted to secede from TriMet: SMART, SAM, etc.

While I welcome this forward-thinking idea (for a highway building department, anyway) to address traffic concerns at Oregon’s most popular destination, it seems to me that this service is still very much an afterthought by ODOT. If we are serious about getting people out of their cars, then this service falls flat. Unfortunately, the drawbacks don’t outweigh the benefits. When the service expands to Hood River next year (in my opinion, a far more useful destination that I do plan on taking advantage of) I hope that ODOT will take the time to make these simple improvements to this service.

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  • Al M July 11, 2017 at 7:31 am

    Damn shame they couldn’t do it right.

    It’s public transportation, it’s always a fail

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    • 9watts July 13, 2017 at 10:45 pm

      That seems needlessly harsh, and not even half accurate. I love the buses I take. And there are quite a few.

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  • Christopher of Portland July 11, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    I rode it last year. It must’ve not been nearly as busy since I don’t think we filled the small bus at Gateway. The first part of Multnomah Falls was like hiking the line for the cash register on Black Friday. Rooster Rock was nice and calm.

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  • Jake Warr July 11, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks for the feedback Adam, and my apologies that the Columbia Gorge Express did not meet your expectations. What I’ll say in this space is that many of the issues you identified are priorities for us to address as we move through the second year of this pilot program and beyond. Specifically with regard to schedule reliability, we’re currently working on a revised schedule that better matches reality out there and provides the best service possible, given the resources we have.

    Happy to continue the conversation if you’d like further details, or have additional thoughts/questions.

    Thanks again,
    Jake Warr
    Columbia Gorge Express Manager

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    • 9watts July 13, 2017 at 10:47 pm

      I think it is excellent that you posted here, Mr. Warr. I would think an ongoing substantive conversation between those who use and those who run these buses (or any buses) would be incredibly useful, and in a world I’d like to imagine myself living, could lead to meaningful improvements.

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  • Tom Hardy July 12, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Good writeup Adam. Jake, definitely take to heart the suggestions Adam made for the parking at Multnomah falls. Definitely put a fee on the parking in both parking areas at Multnomah falls. After all there is a parking/admission fee at Rooster Rock. Makes common sense to have a parking fee. It only takes a few minutes for the signs and paint.
    The parking fee will also pay for sheltered waiting area.

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  • Another Engineer July 12, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    I think you are missing the forest for the trees on this one. The fact that this pilot is now funded through another year to improve should be lauded.

    You may find “The fact that a full parking lot at the falls caused the bus to make a 20 minute detour is unacceptable.” But in reality it is not for a recreational service. This is the second season of the pilot program for this shuttle, the funding for which was hard enough to pull together. As for the gates at Multnomah Falls, they were engineered before a transit service was determined to be a need. The gates serve their purpose of solving the safety issues associated with queued vehicles on I-84. There is no need for a bus turnaround, the capital costs would be prohibitive, in the future communications upgrades could be installed to open the gate for nearing transit with a part time restriction sign telling regular drivers they wouldn’t be allowed to enter.

    Good things come with time.

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    • Adam
      Adam July 14, 2017 at 12:33 am

      As a seasoned public transit rider, I certainly don’t expect complete convenience from a bus service. However, this bus fails to meet even many basic expectations. I don’t really buy the finding argument either, considering ODOT is spending millions on highway widening. You’re saying a bus turnaround is too expensive but adding “auxiliary lanes” to I-205 isn’t?

      I really do want this service to succeed and if ODOT also is hoping for success, there are some easy fixes they could implement to make that happen. If it’s a priority then find the money.

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      • 9watts July 14, 2017 at 5:50 am

        “You’re saying a bus turnaround is too expensive but adding ‘auxiliary lanes’ to I-205 isn’t?”

        Oh, that part is easy: I-205 is where grown ups clog things up in the course of going about their business; this gorge bus thing is for those ‘kids’ who for some reason we don’t really understand can’t afford a car/to be grown ups.

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      • Another Engineer July 14, 2017 at 11:21 am

        I wasn’t saying don’t build improvements I was just saying that it wouldn’t be the right solution to fit the need at the location. Upgrades to communications and the bus stop are likely a $250,000 project and would leave more green space at the location. A bus turnaround is likely a few million dollar project and would put more asphalt on the ground.

        I understand your viewpoint and agree that funding allocations are skewed but you are going to lose the ears of people who work in the transportation field by making statements like:

        “You’re saying a bus turnaround is too expensive but adding ‘auxiliary lanes’ to I-205 isn’t?”

        The reason that I-205 got funding is because it has been in regional transportation plans for years and that is generally how funding finds project in the current bureaucratic environment. We should be advocating for a bike/ped innovation fund or specific project funding for these kinds of services so that there is a funding source when good ideas like the ones you presented arise.

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  • Eric Leifsdad July 17, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    That was 4hrs for a 48mile round trip, so 12mph? Even over such a long distance, transit can’t beat bike speed! Of course, to ride the gorge would be 2hrs in the car sewer or you can take a lot of extra climbing on winding highways?

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    • Adam
      Adam July 17, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      I would actually really love to bike the gorge if there was a completely car-free path and it was reasonably flat.

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  • Justin M July 23, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    There’s park and ride at the Gateway TC, right?

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  • Adam August 1, 2017 at 10:47 am

    One would hope that eventually (I’m talking the year 2050, when we are all robots) the MAX line will extend out here.

    It already goes to Gresham. Lord only knows why it doesn’t extend to Troutdale yet is anyone’s guess.

    The idea that Multnomah Falls, the number two tourist destination in the entire State, does not have a train station is baffling to me. It its primarily visited by tourists.

    Tourists come from places that have trains (aka, everywhere other than America). Tourists willingly take trains. Tourists are not transportation snobs like Americans.

    End rant.

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