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New system to limit visitors, hopefully traffic, within Columbia River Gorge 'Waterfall Corridor.'

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - The millions who visit Multnomah Falls every year helped spur a new ticket system to drive the Historic Highway this summer. Something had to be done.

That is the refrain from state officials who have long dealt with the nightmare congestion during summers in the Columbia River Gorge.

As locals know, it has always been an unwritten rule to avoid the Historic Columbia River Highway and Multnomah Falls on sunny summer days. At the peak of good weather, hundreds of drivers typically park along the narrow, two-lane highways with their hazards blinking, waiting on the off chance one of the couple dozen spots in the historic lot opens up. Others, rightfully impatient, try to pass as pedestrians weave their way between cars.

All told it has been more than congestion; it has been dangerous.

"It wasn't hard to notice the problems when you came out here on a weekend," said Stan Hinatsu, with the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area. "And we have had an increase in recreation the last 15 years, and more recently with COVID loosening up."

"All of it combined into a problem — high-level of use, crowded conditions, and no parking spaces," he added.

So, for the past year, a team of organizations have come together in search of a solution. Tuesday morning, May 24, their answer came in the form of the Waterfall Corridor Timed-Use Permits.

All private vehicles must purchase a $2 ticket in advance to drive along the "Waterfall Corridor" within the Columbia River Gorge between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. from the Bridal Veil off-ramp (Interstate 84 Exit 28) and Ainsworth State Park (Exit 35).

The pilot program's goal is to reduce that unwieldly congestion and prevent the Gorge from being "loved to death" by millions of annual visitors. COURTESY PHOTO: FRIENDS OF THE COLUMBIA GORGE - Eastbound traffic backs up approaching Multnomah Falls.

The program was launched by Multnomah County, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the U.S. Forest Service.

Permits are available online at recreation.gov. You can buy a pass two weeks prior to visiting, which gives a window to enter into the restricted roadway. The goal is to space out visitors, with only a few slots per timeframe.

There are also in-person, same-day passes for free at places like the Gateway to the Gorge Visitor Center in Troutdale and the Cascade Locks Historical Museum — but that option is regarded as highly unreliable.

Anyone who does not have a permit, or misses their entry window, will be turned away by Oregon State Parks personnel standing alongside the roadway checking for passes.

"A lot of people felt like this was a long time coming," said Karen Davis, U.S. Forest Service. "It was extreme congestion — people stuck in traffic for hours."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Stan Hinatsu, Columbia Gorge Scenic Area Wading forward

Since the program was first announced earlier this spring, community members have been unhappy.

Many have called the tickets an extra tax, or fees, to access a local resource. They have been annoyed about the end to summer spur-of-the-moment trips up the Gorge. And though the permits have been maligned, public input has already had an impact on getting officials to scale back the scope of the permit program, and to commit to being flexible to address any new problems.

"Because this is all brand new, we plan on evaluating feedback to see if this will really work," Hinatsu said. "But this system does mean people will need to plan ahead when it comes to visiting the Gorge — no longer will you be able to wake up on a Saturday and drive the highway."

Initially, the restricted access began at Vista House, but by shortening the scope, officials hope to curb some of those immediate concerns. Folks living within the restricted zone do not need passes, nor does anyone providing a service to a resident or business within the zone.

The problem child continues to be Multnomah Falls, which has been trampled by more than 3.6 million visitors annually. Officials have tried all sorts of things to keep people moving — line striping, blocking lots when full, closing unofficial spaces along the Historic Highway, employing flaggers to desperately keep drivers moving — but none of it worked, spurring this latest effort.

When crafting the system, ODOT took the reins in using recent data to figure out the number of cars to allow through. A study from 2017-2019 showed them when peak visiting hours were, how long cars stayed in lots, how quickly visitors left the area, and more.

All of that informed the number of vehicles — initially 60 tickets per hour-window — and when the program begins.

Many of the more strenuous hikes, like Angel's Rest Trail, have their lots filled long before 9 a.m. So, this system doesn't affect those wanting to spend the day on the trails, and visitors in the afternoon weren't trying to find parking spots in those locations, ODOT said. The timed permits seem mostly focused on the big waterfall locations, with relatively easy, short paths.

And the catchall thing to remember is: this is a pilot program. Most of the folks touting the new system know it will be imperfect in these opening weeks, and they expect changes to be made. They could adjust the hours of restricted access or change the number of tickets available during certain time slots.

"We will be proactive in shifting this around to best serve the community and hopefully prevent the congestion," Hinatsu said.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Officials are pushing alternate ways to travel the Gorge, like catching a ride on the Sasquatch Shuttle.  Alternate methods

Kent Krumpschmidt knows the headache that is the Gorge better than most — the East Multnomah County resident served as a Sheriff's deputy for years stationed in that neck of the woods.

He was one of the people valiantly trying to keep everything moving, while addressing accidents and the rash of theft that plague people who park at the trailheads.

"I know the problems in the Gorge intimately," he said. "The congestion is horrible, and car break-ins in the Gorge is one of the largest crimes in Multnomah County."

So, after retiring, he decided to do something about it — and provide his wife the added benefit of getting him out of the house. Krumpschmidt founded Sasquatch Shuttle, a hop-on, hop-off service that operates out of Bridal Veil. It is $15 per person, and lets you leave your car at a manned lot.

"With our shuttle you don't have to deal with traffic and parking," he said. "You can look out and enjoy the sights."

Sasquatch Shuttle is one of the alternate methods to driving the Historic Highway that officials are heavily promoting. Their plan is more than just blocking access; they want to prompt people to think creatively when it comes to visiting Multnomah Falls.

There is the Columbia Gorge Express, which offers transit throughout the Gorge for $10 one-way.

And another method is by bike.

E-Bike Multnomah Falls is a rental business that began last year. Folks can rent electronic bikes to use over several timeframes out of the parking lot at Latourell Falls and Rooster Rock State Park.

You have to be at least 16 years old and know how to ride a bike. But because they are powered, it removes the difficulty around some of the more strenuous, steep sections of the highway.

"We give a way to experience the highway how it was intended — in the open air and feeling the energy coming off these amazing waterfalls," said owner Taylor Marean. "You are here for the greenery, so you might as well get as close as possible to it."

It's too early to know if this ticket system will work. On launch day the numbers were still slowly trickling in. And perhaps come Sept. 5, when the pilot is scheduled to end, it will all be scuttled. But for now, the gaggle of officials are hopeful this will at least make a dent in the Gorge's congestion.

"In the end we knew we needed to think more broadly," Hinatsu said. "There is no elegant solution, no one thing that will solve this."PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Taylor Marean founded E-Bike Multnomah Falls as a way to promote folks enjoying the highway in a new way.

Permits

Learn more about the new ticket system and reserve a time slot to drive through the Gorge at bit.ly/3GekCOT

Skip the pass

Here are three alternatives to driving your car through the "Waterfall Corridor" while still enjoying all the sites.

Sasquatch Shuttle, sasquatchshuttle.com

E-Bike Multnomah Falls, ebikemultnomahfalls.com

Columbia Gorge Express, ridecatbus.org/columbia-gorge-express/


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