Steps taken and decisions made today will establish the pace for the area for decades to come

COURTESY: ODOT - Paul Mather

One of the Oregon Department of Transportation's important duties is to enhance and protect the Columbia River Gorge, one of Oregon's crown jewels.

We work with the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Parks and Recreation, the Columbia Gorge Commission, local businesses, advisory groups and community leaders and the state of Washington, our co-partners. We all have important roles to play.

We face difficult and complicated issues in the Gorge, including congestion, fire and severe winter weather.

The increasing congestion challenges us to devise ways of keeping the Gorge accessible to as many people as possible with as minimal an impact as possible on its natural beauty. We have a long way to go but we're on that path.

We took a big step in 2016 with the opening of the Columbia Gorge Express, the bus service now operating year-round between Hood River and the Gateway Transit Center in Portland, which links it to TriMet's buses and MAX trains. The Express brings the Gorge within reach of more people while limiting the impact of cars.

And just a few weeks ago we opened a new three-mile segment of the Columbia Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway State Trail, which lures hikers and bicycle riders from around the world.

ODOT's role in the Gorge goes back more than a century. We were the State Highway Department in 1914 and started work on the Columbia River Highway, replacing the old wagon roads. When the first segment opened in 1916, it was the first scenic highway in the country and eventually reached 73 miles from Troutdale to The Dalles.

But after World War II, the demands on the nation's highways were growing and in the 1950s work started on the interstate highway system. The old scenic road was beautiful, yes, but too small for the bigger cars, too narrow for the freight trucks and not enough capacity for the increasing traffic demands. Several sections of the old scenic road were destroyed to make room for the wider interstate highway.

With the new segment open, project partners have reconnected 68 of the original 73 miles, leaving five miles remaining to complete restoration from Troutdale to The Dalles. Engineering is under way for the remaining five miles, which will include the new Mitchell Point Crossing.

The new Mitchell Point Crossing will echo one of the most distinctive and recognizable features found on the old highway. Mitchell Point was the site of a tunnel with five arched windows overlooking the Columbia River. It opened in 1915 and closed in 1953 because it could no longer accommodate higher traffic volumes, because of the increasing size of vehicles and because of growing rockfall hazards. In 1966, the tunnel was removed altogether to make way for what is now Interstate 84.

Earlier this year, the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission endorsed a new 800-foot tunnel with as many as five arched windows reminiscent of the old tunnel. Construction could begin by 2021.

When complete, the Historic Highway will include 51 miles of roadway shared by vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, managed by ODOT. Another 22 miles will be accessible only by people walking, rolling or biking, sections known as the Historic Highway State Trail and managed by Oregon Parks and Recreation.

In 2017, we saw the dangers of wildfire with the devastating Eagle Creek Fire. And today, conditions are hotter, drier and windier. Part of our duties are to do everything we can to keep I-84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway open during a fire or other severe event to make sure emergency crews have safe access and can do their job.

Winter presents its own problems. The decision to close I-84 in winter weather rests with the district maintenance manager based in Troutdale. They know the road best. We make Troutdale the eastbound closure point so truckers and everyone stranded by a storm has access to motels, restaurants and all the services needed to it wait out.

The steps we take today will set the pace for the decades to come in the Gorge. We will move cautiously, aware that a wrong step doesn't reverse itself easily, but always aware of our obligation to the Gorge.

Paul Mather serves as the deputy director of ODOT after serving as highway division administrator from 2010-2018. Comments can be emailed to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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