To discourage driving, ODOT will require special permits in the Gorge this summer

Posted by on March 3rd, 2022 at 3:16 pm

Welcome to the beautiful Columbia River Gorge!
(Photo: ODOT)

If you want to drive a car to trails along the popular “Waterfall Corridor” in the Gorge via the Historic Columbia River Highway this summer you’ll need a permit. It’s the latest effort from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to reduce the number of cars in the Gorge and limit their negative impacts on safety and the environment.

Map: ODOT

The timed-access permit system will be required for entry into an approximately nine mile stretch of the highway (map at right) and will be in effect from May 24th to September 5th between 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. There will be staffed entry points at Vista House, Bridal Veil Falls, and Ainsworth State Park. ODOT says the permit itself will be free but there’s likely to be a processing fee of about $2 per vehicle.

If you ride a bike or take one of the transit options, you can come and go any time without a permit. Permits also won’t be required for residents and tour bus riders.

Details of the plan are still being fleshed out. The news leaked last last week when Gorge residents who had been contacted by ODOT about the plan forwarded a mailer to media outlets. ODOT met with residents and other Gorge stakeholders on Tuesday to field questions and “get ahead of the rumor mill and allay fears we’ve been hearing,” according to an email we’ve seen from an ODOT staffer.

At a December meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee, staff laid out the reasons for the permits. Key among them are concerns fielded from Corbett Fire & Rescue that the number of cars parked near popular trailheads make emergency response very difficult. And of course the safety of walkers figures into the motivation. “For folks that are walking down the highway, we can put signs up all day long, but the reality is folks either don’t read them or they’re disregarding the signs so [permits] could improve safety around pedestrian access,” said Clay Courtright with the Oregon Parks & Recreation Division.

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Courtright also alluded to concerns that the congestion has gotten so bad they fear it might lead to dangerous road rage altercations.

Shuttle parking at Angel’s Rest trailhead.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“We definitely need to reduce frustration,” Courtright warned. “Folks are still coming regardless of frustration, but at some point it’s going to tip. We don’t need to have law enforcement issues around frustration right? So the road rage, if anyone’s watching the news, that’s increased recently and we would rather have a good user experience than having to deal with enforcement.”

The timed permits will also give ODOT, OPRD and other partners the ability to spread out visits to avoid major crunches at peak times.

ODOT has been trying to reduce congestion along this corridor for years. In 2018, ODOT floated an idea to create a carfree lane in one section of the Historic Highway. That plan has been mothballed, but in the years since, there’s been a growing chorus of voices pushing ODOT to do more to discourage auto use in the Gorge.

In the past few years ODOT and their partners have focused on shuttle services and educating people about carfree visits. The Columbia Gorge Express bus service has been very successful and logged 90,000 boardings when it started running seven-days-a-week in 2018.

The idea for permits came out of the 2019 Historic Highway Congestion & Transportation Safety Plan. One section of that plan highlighted concerns about how increased auto use impacts bicycle traffic:

“Bicyclists use shoulders where available, but the shoulders are narrow and are often used for spillover or illegal parking… In addition, tight curves limit sight distance. The western portion of the study area corridor, near the Portland Women’s Forum, is particularly popular with cyclists riding the Historic Highway, which connects to the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. Narrow and disappearing shoulders create conditions where cyclists must share the road with vehicles. During peak congestion, cyclists may have to squeeze by idling cars and navigate around pedestrians also sharing the travel lane to reach their vehicles or trailheads. The Historic Highway State Trail, under construction as of this writing, is likely to increase bike-through traffic in the corridor when complete.”

The faster we rid the Historic Highway of unnecessary cars, the better.

For more information on the new permit system, check out the official website.

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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sorenCharleyChris IKalenMark Recent comment authors
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Clarity
Guest

I would love to take the Gorge Express to get to my hikes, but when it only runs every 3 hours and sometimes ends up so packed that they have to refuse people seats it’s hard to justify it in comparison to renting a Free2Move for the trip, even given fees or congestion. I hope part of the plan is improving options like these!

Charley
Guest
Charley

Yeah. I’m not interested in taking a chance of getting stuck in the dark at a trailhead when the shuttle is full.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

This new system will create a much stronger incentive to use the bus. Hundreds of people every day will fail to get a permit, and their only other option is the bus. I hope that this coincides with an increase in service, but I’ll hold my breath. They need a bus every 30 minutes to make it a viable alternative.

Douglas Kelso
Guest
Douglas Kelso

Am I missing something here, or would it be easier to just charge for parking, and use the revenue to subsidize the Gorge Express (and maybe to start building a flat, safe bikeway from Troutdale to Multnomah Falls)?

X
Guest
X

What’s the overlap between people who want to ride as far as Multnomah Falls, near a busy freeway, and people who want the Multnomah Falls experience? Been there, done with that.

I’ve used the shuttle to access nearby overnight hikes and yes, you have to time your exit to avoid long waits or a layover at Rooster Rock SP.

There are places that are quieter than the Gorge. They may not have the same scenery but you can bike there with less drama and, if you must drive, park forever.

Douglas Kelso
Guest
Douglas Kelso

If there was expensive parking at Multnomah Falls, cheap parking at Rooster Rock State Park, and a flat, safe 7-mile bike path between them … I can certainly see parking at Rooster Rock and biking to Multnomah Falls as a fun family adventure. It’s the sort of thing my parents would have done when we kids were in middle school, and I doubt we’re unique.

I can also see a Multnomah Falls-Troutdale bikeway as a useful link in bicycle tourism, connecting the Historic Columbia River Highway to the 40-Mile Loop without the need for the steep climb over Crown Point.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

We desperately need a flat option between Troutdale and Bridal Veil. The ride up and through Corbett is not an option for 99.9% of the population (difficult hills, and hostile drivers)

There is sufficient ROW between I-84 and the river for the entire length, and it would attract a lot of new riders.

squareman
Subscriber

Proto-congestion pricing? Rural congestion pricing is probably more accurate. And I’m all for it.

James
Guest
James

I think this is great. The question I can’t get answered is, if the permits are from 9-6, can I get out there at 7 and bust out a trail with my dog, and exit at 10:00 with no issues? My dog doesn’t ride a bike. We do these kinds of hikes almost monthly and when we get back to the car the parking lots are usually just starting to fill up.

Orig JF
Guest
Orig JF

I too am part of the “early bird gets the worm” mentality. I think there should still be a clear understanding that if arriving before/after the requirement to have a reservation is OK. AND. Just because you have a reservation does not guarantee parking at the falls/trailhead you would like to see.

Seems like the intent is to limit traffic through the Historic Hwy. during peak hours. Therefore, in theory, if you arrive before those times, but depart during those times, the departure by motor vehicle should go smoother as well.

X
Guest
X

It seems like visitor cars are controlled with appointments at entry points? Cars exiting the waterfall section would have to be allowed to exit at any time. I doubt if they will try to tell people how long they can stay.

Mark
Guest
Mark

That is correct. You can enter before 9am and stay as long as you want

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

It sounds like this is going to end up like Mt. Hood during ski season (The Govy 500). If you don’t get to the sno park by 8:15, you don’t get parking.

PATRICK
Guest
PATRICK

I have ridden this route when it is packed for a mile or more of standing cars waiting to get into Multnomah Falls parking lot (and at the lot the hapless drivers just sit and wait for one of the few spots to open and snookering the miles of cars waiting behind). On a bike, I pass the cars and then move into the line of cars to allow the oncoming traffic to pass. Sadly more than 1/2 of the drivers creep their cars forward to try to stop me from moving over to let the oncoming traffic to pass. The frustration of being stuck in a traffic jam in a forest and no way to escape is a situation that is going to make someone blow their cool and do something stupid. Scheduling and charging admission is not a fun solution but not doing anything is far worse.

Watts
Guest
Watts

Sadly more than 1/2 of the drivers creep their cars forward to try to stop me from moving over to let the oncoming traffic to pass.

That may be the effect, but I doubt most folks would intentionally prevent you from avoiding a head-on crash with an oncoming car.

PATRICK
Guest
PATRICK

Sadly based on the looks I have gotten, some are trying to make life difficult and dangerous.

X
Guest
X

This is a situation where well-designed frequent transit could provide a better experience for travellers while removing congestion, protecting the local environment, etc. Instead of doing that we’re trying to figure out how to allocate space to private car use. On this road, two private cars make a traffic jam because one of them will impersonate a car commercial until they encounter the other.

soren
Guest
soren

If we are going to address the massive increase in CO2e emission associated with AFOLU and the biodiversity crisis* then we need to stop treating forests and the wilds as our bougie playgrounds. Access to forests and other wild lands should be banned or severely limited.

*the other ongoing global tragedy of the commons that no one gives a #@$% about

Kalen
Guest
Kalen

Banning access to forests? Wow…what kind of world do you come from? Humans need more immersion in forests now than ever.

Charley
Guest
Charley

I hesitate to even reply to you. . . but I think this comment deserves pushback.

It is theoretically possible that limiting human access to “forests and other wild lands” would, on the net, be positive for biodiversity. However, if we’re going to base our policies on thought experiments such as “human involvement in the existing landscape can only be a negative,” then we should probably give equal consideration to the possibility that “voters won’t give two shits about a place they’re not even allowed to visit”. In that case, imagine trying to rally the public around the cause of biodiversity conservation.

In fact, if you’ll recall the early days of the Trump administration, it was public and interest-group feedback that blunted the GOP push (Utah Senator Mike Lee was a big proponent) of public lands privatization. Specifically, hunters and anglers are a small but culturally visible constituency of the GOP, and public lands provide many opportunities for sport hunting and fishing. Privatization would have resulted in less access for these individuals, and after they privately and publicly voiced their concerns, that part of the GOP platform was dropped like a hot rock.

Now think about the world in which this well-placed constituency didn’t have access to wild places. Deer/trout populations might benefit from a restriction on hunter/angler access, but the net effect of that constituency’s absence might have proved disastrous for Western biodiversity, because the net effect of eventual privatization would have been increased logging, grazing, mining, and exurban sprawl.

I can’t think of a better example of a refutation of your thesis.

A final note: I grow increasingly exasperated with maximalist, preservationist rhetoric about “wildness” and “wilderness” in the context of North American landscapes. The whole exclusionist ideology reeks of its racist, eugenicist origins at the end of the 19th century, alongside more beneficial ideas relating to conservation. Indigenous peoples hunted, gardened, burned, shat on, and traveled all over this continent, beginning 19,000 to 26,000 years ago.

Most of our western landscapes are no more pristine, pure, or “untrammeled” than a New York City sidewalk, even if our landscapes do have more wildlife and open vistas.

Our lives are interdependent with this place we call home. I’m sure you and I agree our government and citizenry could do a better job of increasing biodiversity and protecting the ecology of our landscapes, but nothing good will come from separating us from these places.

soren
Guest
soren

As I stated explicitly in my comment I do not support use of forests and wild lands as the bougie playground of SUV-driving city folk. Access to large swathes of forest and wild land is already severely limited by lack of roads and regulation. It’s really unfortunate that you, apparently, see these policies as flawed because they “theoretically” might make voters less engaged in protecting wild lands.

..are no more pristine, pure, or “untrammeled”

I don’t care about colonizer “environmentalist” nonsense at all. I care about the interlinked biodiversity and climates crises and their impact on lower/no-income folk across the globe.

Specifically, hunters and anglers are a small but culturally visible constituency of the GOP … this well-placed constituency didn’t have access to wild places. Deer/trout populations might benefit from a restriction on hunter/angler…

Is preserving access of GOP hunters and anglers really compatible with indigenous sovereignty?

Charley
Guest
Charley

Yeah, this is why I was hesitant to comment.

You made a claim and suggested a policy response:
You claim: “treating forests and the wilds as our bougie playgrounds” is a necessary component of “the massive increase in CO2e emission associated with AFOLU and the biodiversity crisis”.

You suggesting policy response:
“Access to forests and other wild lands should be banned or severely limited.”

I disagreed with your claim:
I claim that recreation use is not zero-impact, but can create a sense of caring for the land, and creates incentives for ecologically beneficial public management, as opposed to the profit-maximizing incentives of private ownership.

I also disagree with your policy response:
I advocate for public access; I also provided an example of this principle in action.

But you’ve responded to my comment by simply re-stating your position, and then mis-reading both my claims and evidence.

So in response:

“As I stated explicitly in my comment I do not support use of forests and wild lands as the bougie playground of SUV-driving city folk.” Yeah I got that from your original comment. I’m disagreeing. That’s how this works, right? You’ve provided a reason (“playground” leads to AFOLU and biodiversity crisis), but no evidence. On the other hand, judging from context, I wonder if your claim is animated more by class resentment (“bougie”) than evidence. If that’s the case, there’s really no arguing with it.

“Access to large swathes of forest and wild land is already severely limited by lack of roads and regulation.” Not true: there are roads through almost every nook and cranny of the lower 48. “Severely limited by lack of roads” is definitely not how I would characterize woodlands access in the lower 48. A person can drive within a day’s hike of most points, even in our mountains. Locally, the North Cascades and Wallowas have large, contiguous, roadless areas. But that’s the exception, not the rule. Even in these large roadless areas, a fit hiker can visit deeply into these locations, and very few regulations currently prohibit that activity.

“I don’t care about colonizer “environmentalist” nonsense at all. I care about the interlinked biodiversity and climates crises and their impact on lower/no-income folk across the globe.” There are a lot of tools to mitigate these crises. In years of listening to biologists, climatologists, ecologists, and climate change advocates, etc, I’ve never heard any of them suggest that outdoors recreation is a prime driver of either crisis. I’ve never heard any of them suggest that severely curtailing outdoor recreation would have a positive effect on either crisis, either. Again, I do wonder if, given the way you’ve framed this (“bougie,” “SUV-driving city folk”), resentment, rather than scientific evidence, is guiding your suggested policy response, because when I listen to actual scientists, your policy preference does not come up.

“Is preserving access of GOP hunters and anglers really compatible with indigenous sovereignty?” Absolutely! Various tribes and nations have different approaches to “public access” on tribal lands, and some choose to legalize and regulate hunting and fishing. But I wasn’t talking about hunter/angler access on tribal lands; “public lands” means Federal and State lands, such as State Parks, BLM land, Forest Service, etc. Tribal lands aren’t “public lands,” though there may be more or less “public” land in a tribal context, such as US26 through the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ Warm Spring Reservation, which is open for anyone to drive on, as compared to a tribal member’s home, which would be their private property.

That’s not the really interesting thing about your question, though:
Implicit in your question is the remarkable suggestion that indigeneity and US political party membership are somehow mutually exclusive. Specifically, the idea that no indigenous person could be in the GOP would be a wildly inappropriate assumption for a person to make, and would reflect a degree of cultural ignorance.

soren
Guest
soren

Your assumption that my interest in removing the implicit right of bougie settler-colonists to use indigenous lands for their pleasure and recreation was “racist” and “eugenicist” was the epitome of bad faith. It seems to me that there is lot of white sugar calling bleached flour white in your complaints.

Implicit in your question is the remarkable suggestion that indigeneity and US political party membership are somehow mutually exclusive.

Nah. My implicit assumption is that the GOP* (word used in your own comment) is and has been hostile to the sovereignty of indigenous peoples.

…“public lands” means Federal and State lands, such as State Parks, BLM land, Forest Service, etc.

Land back.

*And the democratic party. Pretending that genocide did not happen (or that there is nothing we can do about it except for adding a land acknowledgment to our email signature) is the default “white” cultural stance in the USA.