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Summer pilot program halves traffic along Historic Highway; to be tweaked for coming tourist season

PMG FILE PHOTO - A timed ticket system will be back next summer for visitors to the Waterfall Corridor within the Columbia River Gorge. Restricted access to the "Waterfall Corridor" within the Columbia River Gorge is likely to remerge next summer after officials cautiously applauded a successful pilot program that nearly halved congestion and traffic to some of Oregon's most popular tourist destinations.

During a Historic Highway Advisory Committee Meeting earlier this month, a presentation broke down the affects of the timed-permit system that ran from May 24th through Sept. 5th.

The program, which raised some grumbles from locals unhappy about having restricted access to the Gorge, required the online purchase of $2 tickets to cruise the popular 18-mile "Waterfall Corridor" — headlined by Multnomah Falls.

The passes were required per vehicle, allowing entry to the corridor during a set window at one of two entry points, Bridal Veil or Ainsworth State Park. Once in the corridor visitors could stay as long as they wished. There were also a limited number of free, day-of permits.

The program was coordinated between the Oregon Department of Transportation, U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State Parks and Multnomah County.

According to officials, this past summer there were 49,633 permits issued online, and another 1,532 issued in-person. Of the 60 tickets available per hour, data found between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. more than 50 tickets were claimed. At 4 p.m. visitors dropped to just over 40; while at 5 p.m. it dropped to just over 20 visitors per day.

As expected, the weekend was the most popular time to visit. On average more than 500 passes were claimed on Saturdays and Sundays. The least popular day was Tuesday, though it still accounted for about 425 visitors per day.

In total reports found the new system cut the average daily vehicle volume along the "Waterfall Corridor" in half.

According to officials, the pilot program cut the average daily vehicle volumes in half along the "Waterfall Corridor."

"This is a pilot program — a modest step to address what has been a pretty serious problem in the Gorge," said Don Hamilton, ODOT spokesperson. "We have a real problem with congestion out there, anyone in East County knows that."

"We are trying to achieve a tricky balance of preserving the beauty of the Gorge while making sure people can still visit," he added.

While there are some kinks to work out, if the timed-entry system returns it will be next summer.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Officials said the ticket system halved vehicle congestions along the Historic Highway this summer.

Public feedback

According to the partner organizations, there was positive feedback about the reduction in traffic through the Gorge thanks to the new system.

But there were some aspects that folks struggled with.

Many found the separate permit systems for the "Waterfall Corridor" and parking at Multnomah Falls to be confusing. Others struggled to arrive within their hour window, especially for out-of-towners unaware of local traffic patterns. To combat this, many reported buying multiple timed permits to create a larger window to visit.

Some struggled with the online purchasing and phone application, instead suggesting the entry points accept cash payments for a ticket.

There were also complaints about the non-guaranteed parking, and frustrations by people who paid for a pass only to be forced to continue past Multnomah Falls because of a lack of spots.

The staff working the checkpoints, at Bridal Veil and Ainsworth State Park, also provided feedback. They said there was a branding problem for the new program, as many confused the timed-entries for a fee. According to staff, about 40% of visitors knew about the permits, and there were language barriers in trying to help people navigate the program.

Staff recommended reducing the number of tickets per hour — down from the 60 available this past summer — and that they faced poor behavior from upset visitors taking their anger out on the employees. There were reports of yelling, swearing, lying about driving through and not needing a pass, and general hostility.

They also requested having more permanent structures at the entry points.

One of the goals of the pass was to promote alternative means of visiting the Gorge. Bikers told organizers they felt safer recreating along the Historic Highway. But privately owned transit lines and tour groups reported far lower ridership than expected.

COURTESY IMAGE: ODOT - A site overview for a park-and-ride proposed for Troutdale.

Troutdale Park-and-Ride

With transportation and congestion continuing to be one of the barriers for truly enjoying the Columbia River Gorge, a proposal has been put forward to have the city of Troutdale live up to its slogan as the "Gateway to the Gorge."

Envisioned for the Confluence Site development, just north of downtown, a Troutdale Park-and-Ride/Transit Hub would allow visitors to experience the sights and sounds of the Gorge and Historic Highway without the headache of parking or purchasing online entry tickets.

The proposed site would have 350-400 parking spaces; a bus loading zone to take visitors to destinations throughout the Gorge; a pedestrian access bridge into downtown; and pedestrian trails to the visitor center/bike hub.

There are still steps that need to be taken before Troutdale would become the parking lot for the Gorge. There are questions around funding and who would own/maintain the site; as well as conversations around what a potential parking structure would look like.

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