Landslide detour adds bustle to quiet Gorge towns

Officials warn about big rigs, impatient drivers on two-lane highway

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter


Updated: February 14, 2014, 8:08 PM


Rockfall risk to complicate Highway 14 detour route

Pack your patience if you’re heading east in the Columbia River Gorge on Saturday.

Geotechnical engineers with the Washington Department of Transportation late Friday found a section of loose rock just above state Highway 14 just east of the Dog Mountain Trailhead (Milepost 53.8) that could fall with little warning.

WSDOT crews started reducing a short section of highway to a single lane at 5 p.m. Friday and plan to maintain those restrictions until at least Saturday afternoon. Flaggers will be out working, and drivers can expect heavy congestion and long delay. Officials are encouraging drivers to avoid that section of SR 14 if possible.

STEVENSON — Oregon's slide means a Washington ride. Some residents of this north-side Columbia River Gorge town said Friday afternoon that they were already tired of an uninterrupted parade of eastbound 18-wheelers rumbling down First Street.

Local businesses, on the other hand, weren't complaining too bitterly.

"It's great for business, but it's bad for employees who can't get here," said Steve Emond, manager of the Big River Grill on Second Street, as a lunchtime rush that was about twice as busy as usual started winding down.

On Thursday afternoon, a fatal crash on state Highway 14 turned the road turning into a parking lot, he said, and at least one of his staffers never made it to work from the other side of the river. It also resulted in business completely drying up, server Carly McKee said.

What a difference a day made. With the crash cleared and lots of traffic diverted through here from Oregon, Emond said, lunchtime business at the Big River Grill was "absolutely nuts."

Matt Wilson, who was just paying his tab, said he moved to Stevenson about six months ago to join his mother and get away from the overwhelming traffic in his former home, San Antonio, Texas. Now, he said, traffic has found its way back to him.

"It is highly unusual," he said. "It's definitely slowing everybody down."

And Stevenson resident Julie Goodman said her husband has worked out a "secret route" to get from home to his job at Portland International Airport — but she didn't want to share what it is, other than to say it involved a lot of meandering on back roads. "Really, there is no easy way," she said.

It's all because of a Wednesday landslide that covered the south side of Interstate 84 in Oregon with 2,000 cubic yards of rock and debris. The slide was at Milepost 61, about three miles west of Hood River. Just one westbound lane on I-84 is currently open. Eastbound I-84 is closed and is expected to remain closed throughout the weekend, from exit 17 in Troutdale to exit 62 in Hood River, as workers clean up the mess. They're hoping to have at least one eastbound lane open sometime on Monday, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

But it's a complicated and hazardous job. Roped-in cliff "scalers" must remove loose rock from the 120-foot cliffside before it's safe for maintenance workers to start removing an estimated 200 dumptruck loads of the rock and debris. The scalers can only work safely during daylight; after they're done, freeway clearing will continue round-the-clock until it is finished, according to ODOT. Meanwhile, heavy rain and wind are have been forecast for this weekend.

Meanwhile, eastbound traffic is being diverted up I-205 and onto state Highway 14, east through Washougal and Stevenson, and back across the Hood River bridge into Oregon to continue east.

Late Friday, ODOT said it had started allowing passenger vehicles to proceed on I-84 east as far as Cascade Locks and Stevenson via the single-lane Bridge of the Gods. Trucks and RVs were still required to take the I-205/Highway 14 detour.

There is a second alternate route, according to ODOT: U.S. 26 (the Mount Hood Highway) east to Oregon Highway 35 and then north to I-84 in Hood River. But that route could be affected by expected heavy rain and snow, so ODOT urges you to visit before you go -- and to expect delays and slow-moving trucks no matter what.

Major traffic, minor road

Local businesses on the Washington side may be happy about the extra commerce coming their way. But tons of additional traffic — and one roadway fatality within 24 hours of the Wednesday slide — has officials with the Washington Department of Transportation worried about big trucks and driver frustration on a smaller two-lane highway that really isn't built to handle heavy interstate traffic.

The crash happened Thursday when an Oregon man's car crossed the state Highway 14 center line into incoming traffic. The driver of that car was killed and the driver of the other car was taken to a Hood River hospital with injuries that were not expected to be life-threatening, according to Washington State Patrol trooper Will Finn.

"Traffic is a lot slower on SR 14 because we're getting so much traffic from Oregon — trucks as well as cars," said Abbi Russell, Southwest Washington spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation. "Folks may get frustrated and impatient and engage in some risky behavior. Trying to get to your destination is not worth endangering yourself or others. We want to thank drivers for their patience."

Truckers struggling to go east need to understand the risks — and the rules, Russell said.

"Oversize loads are not allowed on SR 14. If you've done your homework you know that. We just worry that truckers who haven't done their research might not know what they're getting themselves into," she said.

That means a simple two-lane highway with sharp curves, tight tunnels, narrow bridges and spotty shoulders. "It's a state road, not an interstate freeway," Russell said.

She said there have been many reports of oversized trucks that have pulled over, either because their drivers have realized they're stuck, or because they've been busted by the state patrol. "Enforcement is definitely out there," said Russell.

Making things even more difficult, she said, are dozens of smaller rock slides on the highway between Cape Horn and Maryhill. Snow and freezing temperatures followed by a quick thaw and "all that rain" has caused those rocks to dislodge, she said. Crews are responding, she said.

"The Earth is a living thing," she said. "It's always shifting and moving. But it doesn't always move this quickly."

ODOT crews work to remove rock after landslide