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