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New ODOT guardrails on Historic Highway make cycling more dangerous

Posted by on June 29th, 2020 at 3:11 pm

New guardrails on Historic Columbia River Highway along Sandy River.
(Photos by BikePortland Forum user amadeusb4)

“We certainly understand how this effort reduces space available for bikers and other users…”
— Don Hamilton, ODOT

The Oregon Department of Transportation has narrowed the shoulder on several sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway. The installation of guardrails reduces space for cycling and increases danger for vulnerable road users on a very popular route along the Sandy River.

Earlier this month I noticed “No Parking” signs and barricades in several unpaved turnouts on the west side of the highway between Lewis & Clark State Recreation Area and the Stark Street Bridge. I assumed they were temporary measures to reduce crowds in line with the state’s Covid-19 response, or perhaps a way to discourage people from parking for several days without moving. Then last week BikePortland Forum user amadeusb4 noticed ODOT crews installing permanent guardrails.

“This is terrible for bicyclists!” amadeusb4 wrote. “I bicycle this often and always speed through the [existing] barrier sections because of the narrowness of the bike lane there. Now, most of the southbound side is going to have a barrier! While they will eliminate the occasional car backing out of a spot in front of a cyclist, they severely limit the amount of road available to bicycles to the right of the white line.”


Bicycle riders move into the adjacent lane in the area with reduced shoulder space.

As you can see in the images, ODOT’s new guardrail was placed in the middle of the paved shoulder. This leaves bicycle users with about half the space they had before.

The new guardrails have been installed at three different locations each about 1,000 feet long. There was zero public notice prior to their installation.

The Historic Highway already has a few sections of guardrail in this same general area and (like amadeusb4 shared above) the reduced shoulder space definitely increases stress levels. The speed limit here is 35 mph and curves and context of the road make it a place where some drivers go much faster. This section of the highway is extremely popular because it’s relatively close to Portland (about 20 miles away) and a gateway to great roads in Corbett, the Columbia River Gorge, Larch Mountain, Sandy, and so on.

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Asked about the project, ODOT Region 1 Public Information Officer Don Hamilton said his agency knows the guardrails will lead to less space for cycling, but he maintains they are necessary to deter illegal parking and camping along the shoulder. “We certainly understand how this effort reduces space available for bikers and other users,” Hamilton shared with us in an email. “But illegal campers were already causing problems by blocking the shoulders and sometimes the road and creating significant health and safety hazards, among them litter and other debris and refuse.” Because of this, Hamilton claims the guardrails make the road safer for bike riders.

Hamilton added that they tried to position the barrier closer to the edge of the shoulder but they weren’t able to because of a buried gas line.

This is a very unfortunate move by ODOT. They’ve taken a temporary problem (illegal parking behaviors) and introduced a solution that has a permanently negative consequence to our most vulnerable road users on one our state’s marquee cycling routes. This section of the highway is also part of Adventure Cycling Association’s Lewis & Clark Trail route.

This is not the first time the agency has made cycling demonstrably worse on rural roadways (or refused to improve them when given the opportunity). In just one example, in 2013 ODOT faced an outcry from advocacy groups after miles of shoulder on the famed Oregon Coast Bike Route were repaved in a way that left a dangerous ridge in the pavement. The work went against ODOT’s own statewide guidelines and they ultimately forced the contractor (whom they blamed for the error) to re-do the work.

BikePortland Forum user Alan_1.0 says what happened on the Historic Highway can’t be blamed on a contractor. “This strikes me as quite egregious,” they wrote. “Intentionally making the road more dangerous to vulnerable users, even though it is known as a popular ride.” Alan_1.0 thinks ODOT should have a process in place to review roadway modifications to make sure they don’t have a negative impact on vulnerable road users.

I’ve asked Hamilton if they’d consider caution signs warning drivers of reduced shoulder width and/or to expect the presence of bicycle users in the roadway. He said they’ll look into it.

If you have feedback on these guardrails, you can share it via Ask ODOT.

UPDATE, 7/6: ODOT admits these were a “mistake” and is removing them now. See latest story.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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J_R
Guest
J_R

Don Hamilton and the Region Manager should be required to ride that section of highway on bikes by themselves without a gaggle of press and law enforcement. Then they should publicly certify that it is safe.

J_R
Guest
J_R

I’ve been reviewing ODOT’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Design Guide (Appendix L to the Highway Design Manual). The guard rail project is a total affront to the Design Guide. A couple quotes.

“Besides giving an area for cyclists to ride, paved shoulders are provided on rural highways for a variety of safety, operational and maintenance reasons such as:
– Motorists can stop out of traffic in case of emergency, or escape potential crashes; and
– Storm water can be discharged farther from the motor vehicle travel lanes, helping to
preserve the pavement.”

“In general, the shoulder widths recommended for rural highways in the ODOT Highway
Design Manual serve bicyclists well; HDM Table 7-2 should be used when determining
shoulder widths:
Average Daily Traffic 2000
Rural Arterials 4’ 6’ 6’ 8’
Rural Collectors 2’ 5’ 6’ 8’
Rural Local Roads 2’ 5’ 6’ 8’
Table 1-2: Rural road shoulder widths”

“On steep uphill grades, it is desirable to maintain a 6-feet (min. 5-feet) shoulder, as cyclists need more space for maneuvering.”

ODOT should tear out the guard rail since they implemented something in direct conflict with their own standards. Heads should roll.

Kimberlee
Guest
Kimberlee

A week ago I rode from the Stark St bridge up through Springdale and had two terrifying experiences with pick-up trucks coming intentionally close to me. One even came past twice. Both revved their engines when they were beside me.

I am very confused by ODOT making this route even more dangerous. This isn’t just a road where hardcore riders go out for a training ride. This is the access road to the Gorge bike/hike trail that will soon connect cyclists and hikers from Portland to Hood River without getting on 84. Is this expensive, show piece project with huge support going to be cut off by creating an area dangerous for cyclists to use at the main access point for the largest urban population center? Is there another way to get from Portland to the Gorge without a car/bus that I am not aware of? Seems incredibly short sighted.

Steve Hash
Guest
Steve Hash

I wonder how difficult, technically not bureaucratically, it would be to pave a path on the other side of the barrier? From the photos it looks easy enough.

Toadslick
Guest
Toadslick

A bike lane would also have deterred parking and might have been cheaper.

Paul G.
Guest
Paul G.

“Look into it”?

This has to have bikes in roadway warnings. That’s a uphill section — cars are going to be on our a$$ the whole way and we have no way to be safe other than jamming ourselves up against a barrier and hope to hell that no one side swipes us.

This is really, really bad.

Lee Duncan
Guest
Lee Duncan

They’ve done much the same thing in their improvements around Hagg Lake, though not sure it’s ODOT.

They actually blocked of trailheads with “upgraded” guard rails. 🙁

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars. ODOT’s approach to mitigating homeless usage of state highway ROW is really stupid and expensive.

Alex Aldrich
Guest
Alex Aldrich

What a nightmare. I ride this route often, and the existing sections with barriers are already very taxing, sometimes forcing me to take the whole lane as I sprint to get beyond the hazard. Very tight spaces, most of them in turns. This road segment also reliably features aggressive drivers (looking at you, lifted truck dudes) who menace cyclists for amusement, putting my life at risk.

The lack of concern and/or basic understanding for the needs of cyclists from ODOT, and the comms you had with Hamilton there, border on belligerent. The reasons they claim for doing this are not remotely sufficient for the hazards they willfully create.

Bike Guy
Guest
Bike Guy

defund ODOT.

Let me guess; NIMBYs on the other side of the Sandy River didn’t want plebes like us to access the river from the highway? How nice it must be to own river-front property, and have a multi-billion dollar agency perform frivolous, exclusionary tasks such as this during a global pandemic, that make a classic cycling route even more dangerous, to boot.

Anon
Guest
Anon

if buried gas lines prevented placing the guardrails further toward the road shoulder, why not place jersey barriers on the shoulder – those can be placed on top of buried lines.

feels like ODOT didn’t try very hard to avoid this because they don’t care very much

Tom
Guest
Tom

It looks like they are encouraging not discouraging camping. Before the guardrail, campers would need to worry about a car running off the road into their tent. Now with the guardrail the camping will be much lower stress.

A more effective approach would be to place boulders in the off-road dirt area, and leave the shoulder alone.

Does ODOT need to follow any public stakeholder process when doing something like this?

Mark
Guest
Mark

I live in the community (Corbett) and it’s definitely not a temporary problem. The illegal RV/car/vehicle situation had become quite a mess over the past couple of years. Apparently there may have been issues with dumping sewage from RVs right down toward the Sandy River. The illegal day parking (regular tourists) was crazy on sunny days north of I-84 and now guardrails are up there too, although almost no one cycles that spot. This wasn’t a NIMBY issue as far as I’m aware. I agree that boulders in those spots instead of a guardrail would have been much better for those of us pedaling the highway.

Michael Mann
Guest

Here’s an idea. Stage a weekly protest ride (Saturday or Sunday), Lewis and Clark to Dabney, where cyclist have signs stating the problem and what they want done, and TAKE THE LANE the whole way, maybe with a couple cars as escorts front and rear to minimize vehicular retaliation.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

Beside narrowing the shoulder and making the ride less safe, the metal rail is not conforming with the historic white wood guardrails that reflect the historic character of the road. To discard the historic integrity of the HISTORIC COLUMBIA RIVER HIGHWAY to discourage illegal users is small minded and short sighted. Somehow I am not surprised

SD
Subscriber

This has been one of my regular long rides. It was bad enough because of the aggressive local drivers that harass cyclists. This will make it much worse. Could they have put up temporary barriers and plant trees to stop illegal parking?

Fred
Guest
Fred

“We certainly understand how this effort reduces space available for bikers and other users”: Don Hamilton.

Translation: “We really don’t care what impact it has on cyclists or other users – we’re all about speeding up the cars.”

If you “understood” what impact it would have, why did you do it?!

ODOT sux!

Bike Guy
Guest
Bike Guy

I hope I can type another top-level comment. I’m hoping Jonathan can weigh in on this. As of last year there is a new law that requires a public agency that blocks or restricts river access to post a 30-day notice prior to taking the action:

https://olis.oregonlegislature.gov/liz/2019R1/Downloads/MeasureDocument/HB2835/Enrolled

The law doesn’t have a remedy stated, but it might bolster our moral case that ODOT’s actions were improper and unappreciated …

Adam
Guest
Adam

What happened to making this road one way with a contraflow bike/ped path? There were concrete plans announced by ODOT to test this out a year or so ago.

What the hell happened?

Brandon
Guest
Brandon

So ODOT is okay with potential dead cyclists in exchange for keeping the riff raff from camping on the side of the road? This is absurd and unnecessary, there are plenty of ways to accomplish the same result without putting lives in danger. This stretch is dangerous enough without essentially removing the bike lanes, I just hope I don’t end up becoming a ghost bike the next time I want to ride up Larch Mt. or out to the wonderful new trail sections in the gorge.

Lori Ryland
Guest
Lori Ryland

I live along this highway…and without taking dynamite to the cliffs and destroying the homes and properties of people that have lived here for generations….these guardrails serve a very important purpose: TO PROTECT THIS HISTORIC COLUMBIA RIVER HIGHWAY. There are many other places to ride that are safe and this highway is not one of them. You must ride here knowing that you ride at your own risk. There are many guardrails that have to exist so that cars do not go off of the cliff into the Sandy River and for other reason…and that if ODOT erects guardrails it is for very important safety concerns. IT IS A NARROW TWO LANE HIGHWAY with very little shoulder in some spots. It can be very desolated and unsafe should you get a flat tire and are stranded and unable to fix it.Please have some respect for ODOT.

Lori Ryland
Guest
Lori Ryland

I am a homeowner along the Historic Columbia River Highway and have lived there since 1964. Everyone along this highway greatly appreciates the new guardrails installed .

I have ridden my bike from the Stark Street Bridge to the Troutdale Bridge my whole life and with its many curves it is not the safest place to ride a bike.

There are many other better places to ride.

I am attaching a photo of the guardrails recently installed less than 1/2 mile – 1 mile from the new guardrails that were just installed due to safety concerns and they also have very little room between the road and the guardrails. BUT THEY MUST BE THERE TO PROTECT EVERYONE’S SAFETY, just like the NEWEST GUARDRAILS PROTECT THE HISTORIC COLUMBIA RIVER SCENIC HIGHWAY, and the SAFETY OF THE LOCAL COMMUNITY.

There are three parks within 2 miles. Otto Park, Dabney Park, and Lewis and Clark Park. All of which have restrooms and are designed for the public. This area where the newest guardrails were just installed is not a park. The river banks are steep and out of view from the road which is perfect for the homeless who are often mentally ill, doing drugs and disposing of their human waste, garbage, and drug paraphernalia along the river banks and road. Until the guardrails were installed it was a public dump, a place to live and sleep out of view from the public yet be able to park their vehicles next to where they are camped out. It provided a dangerous element to this scenic highway.

This area is a HISTORIC SCENIC AREA without the guardrails it is unprotected from public destruction.

Anyone on a bike needs to see a sign saying WARNING NO ROAD SHOULDER AHEAD.

Without taking dynamite to the cliffs which would be impossible….BIKEPORTLAND.org needs to know there are too many curves, no designated bike lanes, not enough shoulder on the road, and for the safety of the surrounding communities, and to perserve this scenic highway… these guardrails needs to be kept in place. They need to understand that this is a scenic area and that they can enjoy it by car now that that the new guardrails are in or BIKE AT YOUR OWN RISK with SMALL OR NO ROAD SHOULDERS.

Nick
Guest
Nick

I live in troutdale, and drive hwy 30 daily. The garbage and homeless are out of hand. I did not see the guard rail as the best option. But it was something to clean it up. For the cyclist, they are ALL thinking they own the road! They need to register their bikes just like boats, ATV, motorcycle, kyake, and cars. Untill they pay, use the spring water trail. U want rights? Pay like everyone else.