Oregon DOT Extends Public Trail Near Historic Columbia Gorge
Over 100 years ago, they told Sam Hill it couldn't be done. But he did it. And in 1916 the nation's first scenic highway opened up to traffic. The visionary entrepreneur championed the Columbia River Highway, and persisted in spite of enormous skepticism that a road could be built. Hill's Engineer, Samuel Lancaster, was as inspired by the beauty of the landscape as he was challenged by the terrain, pledging to build the highway so that "not one tree was felled, not one fern crushed unnecessarily." When the 73-mile road opened it was hailed as the "King of Roads" by the London Illustrated News.
In this centennial year of that accomplishment, Oregonians are extending the legacy of that build, with improvements to the Interstate (I-84) that replaced the original highway, along with a major extension of the public trail on the bed of the historic highway.
Working Around Visitors
Visitors to the spectacular Columbia Gorge might have missed the activity, since much of the work was done at night. Rich Watanabe, Area Manager, Metro East, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Region 1 said a number of paving and repair operations were conducted this year along the section of I-84 between Troutdale and The Dalles.
One such project was a $9.2 million paving project covering 13.9 miles from Sandy River (just east of Troutdale) to Multnomah Falls. At 620 feet, Multnomah Falls is the nation's second tallest waterfall, and one of Oregon's biggest tourist attractions, with about 3 million visitors a year. Crews worked at night to avoid daytime lane closures in the scenic area and upgraded the section with 97,000 tons of asphalt. The work was substantially done as of late October, Watanabe said.
A few miles further east, crews were making repairs to the Tanner Creek Bridge at Bonneville Dam. Watanabe said the $887,000 job on the 380-foot-long bridge involved a deck overlay and joint repairs in the westbound direction, as well as joint repairs and deck seals on the eastbound side. The work took place between March and August and also included construction of new median barriers.
Further up river, there was a paving project that extended from Cascade Locks to Hood River. That $12.9 million project involved paving four lanes over 18.3 miles with an estimated 122,000 tons of asphalt. A barrier had been installed on that section the previous summer.
Repairing the Rockfall
Beginning later in the season and expected to be complete in spring of 2017 is a rockfall repair and mitigation project near Hood River. The project is a response to a large rockfall event that occurred early in 2014 at milepost 61.2. Rockfall material had blocked the eastbound travel lanes and the lanes were closed for five days while crews removed material from the roadway and performed slope scaling.
ODOT wants to reduce the potential for future large scale rockfall events in this area, making I-84 safer for all travelers. The project will improve slope stability and install a 12-foot-high, 223-foot vegetated roadside barrier to reduce the potential for rockfall material entering the highway. Crews will also remove loose rock from the hillside and install rock bolts and horizontal drains that will improve long-term slope stability.
Historians note that 19th-century bicyclists, organized as the "League of American Wheelmen" originated the "Good Roads" movement that helped bring the Columbia River Highway and others into being in the early 20th century. So it seems right that the reconstruction of the "King of Highways" favors non-motorized traffic.
Recreating the work of Hill and Lancaster is not that simple, though, even with modern machinery.
"There are a lot of construction challenges based on the geology of the area," said Kristen Stallman, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Coordinator for ODOT Region 1. "We are shoehorned in between a rock and a hard place in many sections. They were challenging for Sam Hill and they are challenges today."
Stallman said I-84 construction and decay destroyed much of old highway, in those sections new trail has to be constructed. This construction is difficult with such steep slopes.
Meeting the challenges took some creativity. At Shellrock Mountain, the shoulder of I-84 is extremely narrow already, with a bin wall to protect the road from falling rock. To "˜sneak in' the trail there, it was decided to build it on top of that wall.
Funding the Updates
Stallman noted that 63 miles of the original highway have been opened as the Historic Columbia River Highway and State Trail. Of the 10 miles remaining, funding for five of them has been secured through a variety of competitive federal and state grants including the Federal Lands Access Program and the State Transportation Improvement Plan.
This year's 1.3 miles extension of the trail, from Lindsey Creek to Starvation Creek, is a $2.7 million project, carried out by Colf Landscape Construction. The new trail section was partially opened in September, with some construction continuing into October.
The next 3-mile section, connecting from Wyeth to Lindsey Creek is out for bid with Western Federal Land Highway Division.