PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Despite growing discontent from East Multnomah County residents, officials are moving forward with a pilot program to limit access along the Historic Columbia River Highway this summer.

Visitors and residents who wish to cruise along the popular 18-mile “Waterfall Corridor” — filled with stunning destinations like Multnomah Falls, Latourell Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Angel’s Rest Trailhead — will have to go online in advance to purchase a timed-access ticket.

While some details continue to be ironed out, the basic set up is in place for a program co-created by the Oregon Department of Transportation, U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State Parks and Multnomah County.

“The whole purpose of this is to create a safe, reliable and more predictable experience for everyone,” said Don Hamilton, an ODOT spokesperson. “With fewer vehicles entering at specific times it will provide more room for everybody.”

The ticket system will hopefully alleviate congestion that builds up within the Waterfall Corridor. (Pamplin Media Group, file)

The tickets are likely to cost $2 per vehicle, with the number of passengers having no bearing. The ticket, available for purchase two weeks in advance online, will allow you to enter the Historic Highway at one of three supervised entry points — Vista House, Bridal Veil or Ainsworth State Park. You must arrive during your designated time slot. If you miss your entry time or do not have a pass, you will be turned away.

Passes will be required between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the week from May 24 through Sept. 5. There is also the possibility of same-day ticket purchases, either via unclaimed online slots using a cell phone or in-person sales at the entry stations.

The Portland Tribune is a media partner with KOIN 6 News

After arriving to the Historic Highway, visitors may stay on that stretch of road for as long as they wish, though parking at waterfalls and trailheads is not guaranteed. If you leave the “Waterfall Corridor” you must have another pass to reenter.

“This is a pilot program — a modest step to address what has been a pretty serious problem in the Gorge,” Hamilton said. “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.

There are some caveats. According to the county, folks in the restricted-access zone will be able to receive visitor passes they can distribute to friends and family. There will also be access for delivery and service providers, and the county will work individually with businesses to figure out a bypass system.

Bicyclists and those arriving via public transit or shuttle also do not need passes — a further attempt to limit congestion by promoting alternate modes of transportation.

While the tickets will allow drivers to enter the Waterfall Corridor, there is no guarantee there will be parking available. (Pamplin Media Group/Christopher Keizur)

All of this remains a pilot program, so details may change. It is unclear how long the entry time frame will last and how many tickets there will be per time slot. The associated costs also may change.

The program will be reevaluated this fall, with feedback from the public potentially changing how the ticket system is implemented. Throughout the summer there will also be an online survey for visitors to share feedback and concerns.

“We will look at how successful this has been and whether we want to do it again next summer,” Hamilton said. “This could be tweaked, or something different could be in place.”

Restricted access

This looming pilot program is not the first time the idea of restricting access to the Historic Highway has been bandied about.

In the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire, Bridal Veil and Corbett community members gathered on a stormy fall evening in 2017 at the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, a convent tucked away in the Gorge, to discuss growing concerns around traffic and safety.

While that meeting, hosted by Commissioner Lori Stegmann, began as a discussion around recovery efforts following the fire, it quickly devolved into a heated debate focused on preventing drivers from clogging the roadway. Residents spoke of dangerous activities being conducted by the millions who make their way yearly into the Gorge — speeding and street racing, parking in hazardous places, daredevil bicyclists ignoring traffic signs, and more.

By the end of the discussion, consensus had been reached — keep the Historic Highway closed to outsiders. Though county officials said that wasn’t something they could enact.

Detractors are worried this new ticket system will prevent spontaneous drives through the Gorge for East Multnomah County residents. (Pamplin Media Group/Christopher Keizur)

Two years later, during a 2019 Congestion and Transportation Safety Plan for the Historic Highway, the first seeds of this timed entry system were planted. And now those residents who wanted to keep outsiders off the Historic Highway are one step closer to their goal, though perhaps the definition of “outsider” hits a little closer to home.

This summer only residents and businesses directly inside the “Waterfall Corridor” will be able to eschew buying a ticket with passes. That does not include residents of Corbett, Springdale or Troutdale, who all must pay.

Officials are also discussing having passes for special events, like if a wedding is held along that stretch of highway guests wouldn’t have to each purchase a ticket to attend.

Loved to death

The problem child in the Columbia River Gorge has long been Multnomah Falls, which has been smothered by more than 3.6 million visitors annually.

Benson Bridge Multnomah Falls_1530210233811.jpg.jpg
Multnomah Falls (KOIN, file)

Folks who regularly drive the Historic Highway understand the horror of trying to navigate past Multnomah Falls during the summer. Tourists dead-set on experiencing one of Oregon’s most popular sites will idle on the highway with their hazards on, waiting for a parking spot to open in the historic lot.

Officials have tried all sorts of things to keep people moving. They closed the parking lot for a few years, had flaggers desperately trying to keep drivers continuing on their way, plastered the area with signs warning against turning the highway into an extension of the parking lot, and implemented a similar timed ticket system for Multnomah Falls.

But none of it seems to have worked, spurring this latest attempt. The problem is people love the Gorge, with amazing views, hikes of all difficulty levels, roaring waterfalls, and unique businesses tucked away among the trees. So any plan has to account for the fact that people are going to keep visiting no matter what.

That means this new pilot has the potential to fail in its main goal of clearing congestion.

Perhaps a flood of visitors will swarm into the “Waterfall Corridor” at 8:45 a.m., before the ticket system begins, eating up all the parking for day-long hikes. With the Historic Highway lot back open at Multnomah Falls, people may once again cause traffic jams waiting for a spot, or similar problems could take place at the parking lots at the other waterfalls. Because they had to pay to arrive, folks may be more stubborn in giving up a chance to get out and soak up the views.

But officials remain cautiously optimistic in their messaging. For the partner organizations enacting the ticket system, this all boils down to a single question.

“Can we get people into the Gorge without leaving a big footprint,” Hamilton mused. “This is Oregon’s crown jewel, we want to preserve it.”

What they’re saying:

Reactions to the new timed-ticket pilot program set to limit entry to the “Waterfall Corridor” this summer has been met with an overwhelmingly negative response on social media. Here is what some Outlook readers said:

In the past drivers have refused to continue past the Multnomah Falls lot, instead idling in the middle of the highway awaiting a parking spot. (Pamplin Media Group/Christopher Keizur)
  • Tyler Campbell, “How much does Oregon burn in road tax every year?”
  • Love Marie, “So much for a Sunday drive.”
  • Craig Payton, “You also have to purchase tickets in order to go to Multnomah Falls and park. Thus no more spur of the moment road trips to our beautiful Gorge.”
  • Russ Baley, “Not surprised. Probably want to shut it off to all traffic.”
  • Kizzy Hatter, “(The) last few times I have been the traffic did not seem bad enough for this.”
  • Mary Thiel, “When you have a structure as vulnerable as the highway (…) it’s sad but necessary to figure out how to keep it from being harmed or destroyed by overuse.”
  • Yvonne Chalifoux, “I see the necessity for it. Hopefully it will work and reduce congestion.”
  • Samantha Itkin, “I’m saddened by this as a local who loves to do random drives (on) the Columbia River Highway when I need to recharge my energy.”