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A 30 year-old vision for a carfree Historic Columbia River Highway

Posted by on April 11th, 2018 at 4:15 pm

Imagine a carfree Historic Columbia River Highway… like Dave Wechner did almost 30 years ago.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

There’s been a steady trickle of news here on BikePortland in recent years from agencies and advocates who see a future for carfree traveling in the Columbia River Gorge. But it turns out the idea isn’t as futuristic as you might think.

“Transportation agencies were slow to respond. But it is encouraging to see the progress now being made.”
— Dave Wechner, who pushed for a carfree Gorge in 1989

A few days ago I heard from Dave Wechner, a land-use planner who owns a consulting business based in Coupeville, Washington. Wechner came across our article about the new Carfree Columbia Gorge website and he wanted to share a historical perspective: Nearly 30 years ago he did a graduate thesis based on, “reducing the negative impacts associated with intensive automobile traffic on the Columbia Gorge scenic highway.” He presented the thesis to the Columbia River Gorge Commission in June 1989 while working toward his Masters Degree in environmental studies at University of Oregon.

In his thesis summary (below), Wechner wrote that his hope was to, “Stimulate discussion to develop a new transportation strategy for the scenic highway, employing alternatives to private automobile traffic.” The idea motivated him because he felt fewer people using cars in the Gorge would reduce environmental impacts, enhance recreation and tourism potential, and improve safety on the roads.


Grad thesis - Exec Summary

Among the ideas in his plan were: tolls on private auto use and a permit system so only Gorge residents and their guests would have access to the Historic Highway; a system of shuttle buses; and the construction of several park-and-ride lots outside of the Scenic Area. His visionary proposal saw a linkage between the shuttles and existing TriMet service — the same model being used today by the Columbia Gorge Express service. Wechner also called for bike racks on the all the shuttle buses (three years before TriMet would add them) and a “share lane” for bicycles on the Historic Highway that would include, “boundary lines that drivers and bicyclists may use when passing.”

In an email, Wechner said the response from property owners to his idea of a toll and permit system on the Historic Highway ran the gamut, “From those who thought I was proposing to evict them for four months of the year, to others who figured out the result for them would be positive, as they wouldn’t deal with the crush of traffic on sunny weekends, people driving up and parking in their driveways, dumping garbage, etc.” He said people also liked the idea of how businesses would benefit from being located near park-and-ride locations.

As for transportation agencies, Wechner said, “They were slow to respond.” “But,” he added, “it is encouraging to see the progress now being made.”

Three decades after he pitched his plans, Wechner encouraged me to “Keep this issue alive in the minds of Portlanders — and in turn, others who look to the Northwest for innovation.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and

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33 thoughts on “A 30 year-old vision for a carfree Historic Columbia River Highway”

  1. Avatar Zach says:

    Next up: Car-free Hawthorne, Car-free Division, Car-free Alberta, Car-free Mississippi, and Car-free NW 23rd.

    1. Avatar B. Carfree says:

      Do we have to wait another thirty years?

      1. Avatar Zach says:

        No, because progress isn’t linear—I predict it will happen in the next 10 years.

    2. Avatar Greg Spencer says:

      Hey Zach, I totally agree these sorts of projects are needed. These commercial/ entertainment strips draw loads of pedestrians and it doesn’t make sense that they also function as major car thoroughfares. They could be made car-free, made into shared space with traffic slowed to walking speeds and/or restricted to local traffic and transit only. Many cities have done this on similar street sections, and, as a relative newcomer, I find it odd that Portland of all places hasn’t done it and that there’s not even much talk about it. Do you know of any community activism toward this? Am I missing something?

      1. Avatar Zach says:

        Hey Greg! A car-free NW 13th Ave is in the works (you can message the Pearl District Association on FB for info), but other than that, nada! This is the kind of stuff Better Block *should* be working on, but they’re unfortunately not. So as far as I know, there’s really no one doing anything about any of these city-transforming projects! I’d do it myself if I wasn’t working on growing my business. It’s a MASSIVE opportunity that really needs some rallying around.

  2. Avatar Solutions Finder says:

    Cars allow disabled people the opportunity to see the water falls and other sights along the old highway.

    1. Avatar Chris I says:

      Cars also create disabled people. They give and they take.

      1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

        Cars do not create disabled people – there are many very healthy people who drive. If cars created that disabled people then car owners would be disabled.

        I would argue that in the absence of an endogenous reason (illness/genetics) continual poor choices lead to disability. Some of those poor choices may include driving everywhere and having a sedentary lifestyle.

        1. Avatar Chris I says:

          Hundreds of thousands are injured every year in car crashes. Many of those people become disabled due to those injuries. Cars also enable the sedentary lifestyles that lead to obesity and weight related disabilities. How many obese people with “back problems” and ADA placards would we have if everyone had to walk a mile to buy groceries or get to work?

          1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

            Sorry – I interpreted your comment to be one of lifestyle compared to crashes.

        2. Avatar Dan A says:

          “Cars do not create disabled people – there are many very healthy people who drive.”

          Um, that’s not how logic works.

    2. Avatar nuovorecord says:

      So do shuttle buses and other permitted vehicles. Fewer vehicles mean everybody can enjoy the Gorge at the pace it was meant to be experienced. That highway was never built to handle the amount of auto traffic it currently endures.

    3. Avatar Alan Love says:

      Ah, the great myth that giving people car-free options requires that everyone must give up their car. This whole article is about adding choices, not taking them away.

      1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

        “This whole article is about adding choices, not taking them away.”

        That’s a tactic I take when arguing with my conservative friends. Other people getting rights is not you losing rights.

    4. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

      Maybe we need to accept that there are some things disabled people will never be able to do.

      1. Avatar Brian says:

        “People with disabilities.” Not “disabled people.” It’s a small difference, but “person first” language is the preferred choice these days.

        1. Avatar Middle of the Road Guy says:

          Sorry man, I don’t take part in the euphemism treadmill. Someone is always going to be aggrieved over whichever words are used.

          1. Avatar Brian says:

            Not so much a euphemism as it is the preferred way to be described by those you are describing. I assume you no longer use “colored people.” In the end, of course, it’s your choice. It’s a relatively new change so I thought you might like to know.

    5. Avatar Dan A says:

      Can they still visit the water falls if the speed limit is reduced to 15mph?

      1. Avatar Greg Spencer says:

        No restrictions are proposed for I-84. That’s the exclusive domain of motorists. Why should they also have unqualified rights to use the Historic Highway? Especially when the current set up makes cycling pretty much off limits to all but strong/fearless adult roadies?

        1. Avatar Dan A says:

          Even better.

  3. Avatar just one skip remount says:

    Chris I
    Cars also create disabled people. They give and they take.Recommended 3

    UGH… We get get it… You dont like cars. Cool. And yes, they can create death, destruction and handicaps. But, correct me if Im wrong, the comment was to point out that some users(including those with bicycling abilities) may simply benefit from four wheels and a roof. The term “car” is becoming more abstract everyday. In just ten-twelve years it may not be the gas guzzling, earth destroying, baby eating monster you know it as today. It just might be you, your friend or family member that could benefit from 4 wheel assistance sometime in the future. We’re really just trying to enjoy this beautiful place we call earth with the abilities and tools we have. Thank you!

    1. Avatar Chris I says:

      I own a car. I drove it to work today, and I use it to transport my family to places that aren’t within biking or walking distance.

      I just oppose the notion that everything has to be car-accessible because a small (but growing due to our nation’s obesity crisis) subgroup of people may not be able to access it. I can’t travel in coach on many airlines, or ride many amusement park rides because of my height. Everyone doesn’t get to do everything they want to.

      1. Avatar Greg Spencer says:

        I don’t think it’d be morally right to make a public highway inaccessible to people with disabilities. Certainly, this wouldn’t even be on the table due to the ADA. Besides, the proposal was to restrict traffic to all but the most essential uses, not to ban it.

  4. Avatar just one skip remount says:

    So do shuttle buses and other permitted vehicles. Fewer vehicles mean everybody can enjoy the Gorge at the pace it was meant to be experienced. That highway was never built to handle the amount of auto traffic it currently endures.Recommended 1

    To be fair, the pace the gorge was meant to be enjoyed would mean bushwacking or river swimming. You must be refering to the way the pace the highway was created for.

  5. Avatar Greg Spencer says:

    How about using that rail line along the Gorge? There’s limited rail service on the Washington side of the river, but nothing anymore on the Oregon banks. I’d pay good money for a weekend train connection between Portland and the Gorge. Imagine how much time and hassle you’d save with no vehicle traffic holding you up.

    1. Avatar Chris I says:

      A lot of infrastructure improvement would be needed to make this happen (double-tracking, station platforms, etc). I think it would need to happen as a weekly commuter rail type service as well, to justify the capital investment. I think the lack of demand for that service, and the lack of off-season demand on the weekend make this a non-starter.

    2. Avatar rainbike says:

      I must be misunderstanding. Are you saying that the Union Pacific rail lines on the Oregon side of the Gorge are no longer used?

      1. Avatar Greg Spencer says:

        From what I read, passenger service between Portland and the Gorge was discontinued some time ago. Freight service still runs from Portland all the way through the Gorge.

  6. Avatar Greg Spencer says:

    As Portland-Gorge traffic increases along with Portland’s population, this calculus will change. Who knows when it’ll happen, but on summer weekends Gorge roads and parking lots are already oversubscribed. Leaving these train tracks idle seems preposterous already.

  7. Lenny Anderson Lenny Anderson says:

    Its been about 20 years since Amtrak’s Pioneer service to Salt Lake City was discontinued. It left Portland daily in the morning with stops at Hood River and The Dalles, then Pendleton and so on with a return train in the afternoon; just the opposite of the Empire Builder on WA side. I used it several times when my wife had week long Artist in Residence jobs in The Dalles and LaGrande. It was great.

    1. Avatar Greg Spencer says:

      What a shame! How great it must of been to enjoy the Gorge scenery without the distraction of driving. Hope they bring that back.

  8. Lenny Anderson Lenny Anderson says:

    The trick is to lean on the states of OR, ID and Utah to put up the $ for passenger rail service between Portland and Salt Lake City (where the Pioneer used to connect with the SF-Chicago train). And of course the UPRR! Maybe something like this could start with Sat/Sun service or 3 days/week. Contact Blumenauer and Wyden with the idea.
    Or get ODOT to work with TriMet to operate a couple of their WES cars on weekends to The Dalles and back from Union Station with stops at Troutdale, Multnomah Falls, Cascade Locks Hood River. WES does not operate on weekends. That might work! UPRR freight traffic seems to be lighter on weekends.

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