Safe or Scenic?
Columbia Gorge Commission Pressured WSDOT 
to Compromise Safety for Scenic Views

By Becky Blanton - Editor of the Klickitat County Monitor

Klickitat County, WA - 4/15/02 - The issue of safety and the priority of “natural scenic vistas” versus netting, mesh and other safety measures was raised again at a recent Columbia River Gorge meeting in Cascade Locks, WA, but was met with an unsettling answer.

Efforts to make fallen rock zone safer for motorist compromise by 'green' mindset. Photo by Becky Blanton
Klickitat County Gorge Commissioner Kenn Adcock asked Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) engineer Chuck Ruhsenberger if WSDOT had ever been or felt pressured to compromise highway safety to achieve a more “natural” look to Washington roads in the scenic area.

Before Ruhsenberger could answer, Gorge Commission Chairman Ann Squire interrupted. “You don’t have to answer that question,” she said.
Ruhsenberger said, “That’s ok. I’ll answer it. Yes, we’ve had that conversation, but WSDOT will not compromise safety.”

While WSDOT acknowledges that they have been pressured to conform more with scenic concerns than safety concerns, he assured the commissioners that WSDOT puts safety ahead of scenic vistas.

WSDOT spokesmen say safety is the core of WSDOT’s concern about highway 14 throughout Washington and Oregon. There are dangerously unstable slopes on both highway 14 in Washington and along I-84 in Oregon.

More than 70 sites along highway 14 in the scenic area have been identified as being areas at risk to motorists, pedestrians and recreational users from falling rock.

Ruhsenberger, an area engineer for WSDOT's Columbia Gorge Area Engineering Office, told Commissioners that an Interdisciplinary Team (ID Team) made up of representatives from WSDOT, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Gorge Commission have achieved consensus on 30 rockfall sites along SR-14.

Twenty-six of the 30 sites are located in Skamania County and four are located in Klickitat County.

Most of the sites are in Skamania County because of the type of terrain involved, he said. “These rockfall sites tend to be clustered in certain areas because of geography and their proximity to the highway and the railroad.
“However, the four sites in Klickitat County are very difficult ones, and are priorities for mitigation,” he told the commissioners.

Ruhsenberger said WSDOT will be seeking public comment on the rockfall projects as part of the environmental review. After the environmental assessment is completed by John Meerscheidt of Herrera Consultants, WSDOT will start project development.

Ruhsenberger and Steve Vestal, a WSDOT design engineer of WSDOT gave the Gorge Commission an update on the status of the “unstable slopes project” for Highway 14 from Camas to Roosevelt, Washington on Tuesday, April 9. Completion of an environmental review is the next step in a multi-agency project to reduce rockfall along Washington Scenic Route 14 in the National Scenic Area.

Depending on WSDOT budget considerations, several of the rockfall projects could be completed in the next two years, with the remainder being finished over the next 20 years, Ruhsenberger said. He stressed that the sites identified in the project present different challenges and solutions depending on their terrain and outlined for commissioners various methods and applications the state agency will use in mitigating rockfall along the highway.

Possible methods include re-sloping existing slopes, constructing rockfall ditches, using scale, bolts and shotcrete, realigning the highway itself, and using wire mesh or another type of netting called “Euromesh.”

Vestal noted that the ID Team's recommendation does include specific project recommendations for each of the 30 sites. He indicated that several of the different design options described in the presentation would be used. Some of the options have high construction costs but low maintenance costs. The opposite is also true of many of the options. No indications were given on the handouts or during the presentation about which options are the “safest.” When asked which options were safest, Ruhsenberger said all methods can be made “equally safe” but did not give any information about success or failure rates for any particular method.

Vestal and Ruhsenberger both pointed out that all of the projects will increase public safety. “Public safety will never be compromised,” Ruhsenberger said.

A complete description of the 30 proposed rockfall projects is available from Washington State Department of Transportation, 11018 NE 51st Circle, Vancouver, WA 98668-1709.

Allegations made by motorists, highway workers and local residents of Lyle, point out the concern with the Gorge Commission’s history and reputation of preferring to rule on the side of “looking pretty,” rather than what is reasonable, economical or based on “plain old common sense.”
The Gorge Commission denies they have ever put “natural or scenic aesthetics above public safety.”

However, Commissioner Joe Palenae recalled one incident in Oregon where the Gorge Commission requested that the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) remove a sign with a flashing light to warn motorists of hazards ahead. “They said it wasn’t consistent with the scenic area management plan,” he said.


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