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ODOT will seek funding to replace Eagle Creek stairs on Gorge path

Riders negotiate the infamous Eagle Creek stairs on the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)


Conceptual renderings of possible replacement of Eagle Creek stairs by David Evans & Associates.

“We have this wonderful state trail that has precisely one chunk that is completely inaccessible to many of the folks in our community.”
— Arthur Babitz, advisory committee member

There’s only section of the 73-mile long Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail between Troutdale and The Dalles that isn’t accessible to everyone: a huge staircase in Cascade Locks near the Eagle Creek trailhead.

The stairs pose an insurmountable barrier to some people with disabilities. For riders on adaptive bikes, tandems, bikes pulling cargo trailers — and anyone who can’t easily carry themselves or their chosen vehicle down stairs — they’re a major challenge and pose serious risks.

After years of complaints and even the threat of a lawsuit from cycling and disability rights advocates, the Oregon Department of Transportation is taking steps to rectify this glaring oversight on an otherwise stellar piece of cycling-friendly infrastructure.

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At the December 17th meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee, consultants presented the first-ever conceptual renderings of a viaduct that would smooth out the stairs once and for all. It was part of a scoping exercise completed pro bono for the nonprofit Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway.

The stairs were built when the State Trail first opened in 1996. That was several years before ADA mandates for recreational facilities were in place.

“The reason why we’re looking at this is that the stairs were built very early in the life of this project,” said advisory committee chair Arthur Babitz at a meeting last month. “And we are now quite aware that we have this wonderful state trail that has precisely one chunk that is completely inaccessible to many of the folks in our community. So the challenge here is to look for a design solution as well as funding to correct this error that was made early in the project.”

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“I want to make sure we’re keeping our priorities straight.”
— Rian Windsheimer, ODOT Region 1 Director

ODOT says replacing the stairs has long been a priority, but completing the state trail has taken precedence.

A 2019 Willamette Week story reported how some bicycle riders with disabilities had threatened a lawsuit over the stairs. When ODOT re-opened the state trail in August 2019 following the Eagle Creek wildfire, activists showed up to highlight their concerns.

ODOT plans to use the new scoping report in a federal grant application to replace the stairs (in 2009 the project was estimated to cost around $2.5 million).

ODOT’s Region 1 Manager Rian Windsheimer and ODOT Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Coordinator Terra Lingley are trying to tamp down expectations.

“We’ve said it’s a priority for us to get this fixed at some point in the future, but our priority is the trail and completing it first…,” Windsheimer said. “I want to make sure we’re keeping our priorities straight.”

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Lingley added in an email to BikePortland that, “The final product may or may not align with what they shared at the meeting… there is still much work yet to be done.”

One issue appears to be how the ramp would look. There were several concerned references to how the project must align with the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.

A rep from the US Forest Service (the agency that would have to co-sign any federal grant) said at the meeting that, “We totally support accessibility and making this work. And we also really want to make sure we’re considering the Scenic Act and the impacts to cultural resources and scenery.”

The proposed design at this point would demolish the existing stairway and replace it with a ramp that would have a gradient of 5% or lower. The advisory committee has listed the project on their 2021 work plan and ODOT plans to submit the federal grant application by this coming April. Stay tuned.

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