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ODOT will create carfree lane on Historic Columbia River Highway when it reopens this fall

Cross-section of ODOT’s “phased reopening” plan for the Historic Columbia River Highway.

“This is a great opportunity to try it and see how it operates.”
— Terra Lingley, ODOT Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Coordinator

They say when a fire strikes a forest it comes back even healthier than before. The same might be true for the Historic Columbia River Highway.

When a six-mile section of the scenic road reopens this fall following a one-year closure due to the Eagle Creek Fire, the Oregon Department of Transportation says it’ll have one fewer lane for automobile users. Referred to as the “phased reopening” plan, ODOT will limit automobile use to one lane in the eastbound direction for a five mile section between the Benson State Recreation Area/Hartman Pond (Exit 30) and Ainsworth State Park (Exit 35). The westbound lane will be set aside for walking, rolling, and emergency vehicles (see map graphic below).

As you can see in this section of the highway, there’s currently no dedicated space to walk or bike on.
(Photo: ODOT)

The idea was one of the recommendations in the Historic Columbia River Highway Congestion & Transportation Safety Improvement Plan, an effort launched last summer by ODOT to, “recommend projects and programs to improve safety, reduce vehicular congestion and enhance visitor experience…. along the ‘waterfall corridor’ from Women’s Forum to Ainsworth State Park.” Related efforts include the Columbia Gorge Express bus service which began in 2016 and has since been expanded to keep up with demand. ODOT also promotes carfree Gorge visits and the agency continues to work feverishly to complete new paths that will finally re-connect the Historic Columbia River Highway between Troutdale and The Dalles.

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Map of new lane configuration.

“The one-way configuration for the Historic Highway has been floating around for a decade or so, but there has never been a ‘good’ time to try it,” explained Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Coordinator Terra Lingley in an email yesterday. “This is a great opportunity to try it and see how it operates.”

ODOT says bicycle riders may use either lane during the phased reopening period and that, “Cyclists can use the dedicated lane to travel in either direction, but must yield to people walking and limit speeds.” In addition to making it safer for vulnerable road users, ODOT sees the new lane configuration as a way to ensure more reliable response times for emergency vehicles.

ODOT hosted an open house at Mt. Hood Community College last night to explain the plan to local residents and other frequent users of the highway. As it stands, the highway will reopen sometime in September (if/when all fire recovery work is done) and the new lane configuration will remain in place through October 31st. Right now there are no guarantees about whether this will become a permanent thing. ODOT says they’ll monitor how the phased reopening impacts congestion and safety and if it’s deemed worthwhile they will study a longer-term project.

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

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