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Stop Sprawl
The Road to Better Transportation Projects

Oregon, Mt. Hood Corridor: Early Planning Facilitates Design

Bear Creek
The relocated Bear Creek channel is one of many projects guided by the larger principles established by the Mt. Hood Corridor Study.
Mt. Hood highway roughly parallels a portion of the Oregon Trail and has rich cultural and historic significance. Stretching from the community of Rhododendron to its intersection with State Highway 35, it passes through the Spotted Owl wetlands and several endangered species habitats.

This 35-mile segment came under scrutiny as Mt. Hood National Forest was becoming an increasingly popular recreational destination. As plans for expansion began, pressure to support economic development on the mountain was matched with concern by community interest groups and Native American tribal governments to protect surrounding natural and cultural resources.

Oregon's Department of Transportation (ODOT) had begun widening the entire highway piece-by-piece, but in 1994 the Federal Highway Administration intervened and indicated that the NEPA review process was needed before any additional expansion could occur. Geoffrey Kaiser, then unit environmental/major projects manager for ODOT, wanted a method to consider the highway as a whole instead of studying segments individually. "We proposed an alternative to do a combination for Tier 1 EIS and a 20-year master plan," he said.

Completed in 1996, the resulting Mt. Hood Corridor Study yielded a set of guiding principles to be applied to all future modifications to the entire Mt. Hood Highway over the next 20 years. Establishing the guiding resource conservation principles very early in the planning stages became the critical step to avoid many later obstacles and delays in the development and design phases.

"This was the first real project where ODOT introduced NEPA in the comprehensive planning phase," Kaiser said. "It took a lot of attitude adjustment. It was a challenge for scientists to think more conceptually, but they began to realize that by being involved early in the planning phase, it lessened the detail work later," he added. The study involved a large advisory committee representing community interest groups as well as development advocates.

The group found that widening the segment alone would not alleviate congestion in the area, and thus recommended alternative solutions to mitigating the traffic. These included shuttles, real-time cameras to advise travelers of road conditions, and increased enforcement measures like parking fees to encourage off-peak visits.

Kaiser explained the study’s message, "Before you leap to widening, make a good effort. So far, it has been a useful master plan," he said. The plan has since been used to support subsequent additions to the highway and other neighboring projects, such as relocating a streambed and adding wildlife crossings. "

Each of these projects has to prove that the expansion does not exceed the [development] capacity of the area," said Kaiser.

Donna Kilber, the NEPA coordination manager at the time, attributes the successful study to the NEPA process. "If the NEPA process wasn’t there, I doubt we would have taken the overall look like we did," said Kilber.

Photo courtesy ODOT.

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