The Bus is Back: The Mount Hood Loop

Planners envision a complete bus network around Mount Hood.


A few skiers huddled outside Timberline’s Wy’East Lodge in a near-whiteout on Thursday, hoping for a way off the mountain. A few drivers deemed the trip too dangerous.

But at 4:30 p.m., on schedule to the minute, a 36-seater adventure-mobile — equipped with weather-ready tires, a ski storage box and bike racks — emerged from the blizzard.

It was the Mt. Hood Express.

Ski resort employees rely on the Express and other public transit systems to get to work around the mountain. But the existing network is full of gaps.

That could change with proposed new bus service that would expand options dramatically for workers and carfree urbanites looking for a way around Mount Hood.

The ambitious projects could completely encircle the mountain, connecting ski resorts, medical services, rural communities and natural landmarks.

Here’s what the completed loop would look like:

The Columbia Gorge Express would run from the Gateway Center in Portland to Hood River. There, it would connect to The Dalles Link, Mount Adams Transportation Service buses to Klickitat County and a bus running along Highway 35 to Government Camp. That bus would transfer to the Mt. Hood Express back to Sandy.

mthoodmapThe proposed Mt. Hood Loop

Further connections are possible between Sandy and Portland, and to Bend or Warm Springs.

Eventually, if meetings in Spring and Summer 2018 go as planned, riders could pay for transportation on TriMet, the Gorge Express, the Hood River-Government Camp bus and a host of other buses with one card — like a TriMet Hop Card for the entire region.

“You could take the bus any direction you want to go, and get back on the same thing,” said Ron Nails, Operations Manager for Columbia Area Transit and one of the brains behind the project.

Funding sources

The Western Federal Lands Access Program is likely to approve a $2.8 million grant for Columbia Area Transit to complete the loop. Around $677,000 has been released to CAT for research, and the rest of the money will follow if WFLAP approves the results.

Private partners have also chipped in: Mount Hood Meadows has promised somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000 for the loop pilot program.

Research for the project will begin in May 2018, Nails said, and the pilot could be operational by Fall 2019.


I journeyed along the planned loop, and took note of the project's aspirations and potential challenges.

IMG 0642Cascade Locks recovers from the Eagle Creek fire

Portland to Hood River

A charred hillside still looms over Cascade Locks, a reminder of the Eagle Creek fire that put an early end to the seasonal Columbia Gorge Express route along I-84. But bus service through the Gorge will soon rise again like a phoenix, bigger and better than before.

Beginning in December, CAT’s fixed-route bus from Hood River to Portland will expand to three days and add a stop in Cascade Locks. The Columbia Gorge Express will expand to five days a week. Year-round service could start as soon as next summer, said Jake Warr, who manages the Columbia Gorge Express for ODOT.

CAT's drafted Transit Master Plan further proposes daily service, every three hours in the peak season, at an estimated operating cost of $258,000.

IMG 0659A Columbia Gorge Express stop at Rooster Rock State Park

The Gorge Express saw about 557 trips per day this summer, a 10% increase over the previous season. No comparable rail service exists through the Gorge.

“There is no other transportation competition with it,” Nails said. “On the Washington side you’ve got an Amtrak, but it goes once a day.”

These bus projects will help close a key gap in the region's efforts to reduce single occupancy vehicle trips and improve environmentnal equity — by connecting carless city residents to nature. Last season, the Gorge Express ran to Rooster Rock State Park and Multnomah Falls.

“Enough people started using it that they saw a decrease in cars, but an increase in population,” Nails said. “It increased the accessibility for a lot of people.”

IMG 0658Hood River's growing Waterfront District

Hood River to Government Camp

Alongside the Columbia River, construction booms.  In the rising Hood River waterfront district, apartment buildings rise at the end of a long row of hip bars, breweries and apartment complexes. The new neighborhood, Nails said, will serve as a mega-transit hub connecting the Gorge Express with bus service to Mount Hood and The Dalles.

From the hub, commuters will be able to reach some of the area’s biggest employers—the Google Data Center in the Dalles and Hood River defense contractor Insitu. Celilo Cancer Center and other medical facilities also rely on public transit to get patients to essential services.

“This past winter was brutal,” Nails said. “I’ve seen things in the Gorge I’ve never seen. But people still have to get to dialysis and other treatments.”

IMG 0650Downtown Hood River

Hood River’s geography means it can’t grow out of its traffic problems. The city lies sandwiched between the Columbia and the steep walls of the Gorge, with I-84 slicing through the middle. As population increases, the region needs the bus.

“We’ve had a parking issue for quite some time,” said Grant Polson, owner of Hood River’s Westcliff Lodge. “Nobody could see what they wanted to see. Hopefully the new fixed-route will create more opportunities.”

From the waterfront hub, the uphill walk up 2nd street over I-84 will be replaced with a (possibly self-driving) trolley to the downtown. That will connect to a new downtown fixed-route service beginning in the Spring.

“You can’t get more land,” Nails said. What’s downtown is downtown. The locals will tell you from May to September, they don’t even go into town because of traffic.”  

Nails hopes the revamped fixed-route service will take 100 to 200 employee cars out of downtown, along with countless other tourist vehicles. Better bus service will also pave way for development.

“Economically, it’s going to open it up to not just big businesses, but small business as well,” Nails said.

The downtown core has room to expand if parking spaces are eliminated, Polson said.


“The last thing you want to do is invite them on a bus that’s stuck in the 90s" —Ron Nails, Operations Manager, CAT


From Hood River, two new buses on Route 35 will serve the growing communities of Odell and Parkdale, and shuttle skiers and employees to Government Camp at a cost of $5 one-way. As currently laid out in the master plan, the bus will stop at Mount Hood Meadows and other recreation areas, like Tamanawas Falls, along Route 35.

In the summer Greyhound-style buses will tow trailers with 20 to 24 bikes. During the winter, the vehicles will add retractable chains.

“Our leg is going to be a vital part of getting people from this side of the mountain to their jobs,” Nails said.  

For tourists, Polson said, trips to surrounding natural areas will still be easier by car, but guests nervous about winter driving might take the bus.


“This past winter was brutal,” Nails said. “I’ve seen things in the Gorge I’ve never seen. But people still have to get to dialysis and other treatments.”


 

Nails thinks the way to get more people onboard buses lies not only in frequent and fast service, but with technology: e-fare, wi-fi, electric buses, autonomous vehicles.

“You start getting things up with technology and easier to use, and you start attracting younger generations,” he said. “They’re all about push button, swipe card, photograph my paycheck, it’s in the bank, I’m going fishing.”

Hood River’s cutaway buses, he said, too closely resemble the transportation provided by nearby retirement homes.

“The last thing you want to do is invite them on a bus that’s stuck in the 90s,” he said. “You want to get everything on that bus but a disco ball and a stripper pole.”

 IMG 0749The Mt. Hood Express arrives at Timberline

Mount Hood to Sandy

If any bus radiates coolness, it’s the Mt. Hood Express. On the Thursday I rode from Sandy to Timberline Lodge, the bus gradually filled with a mix of Ski Bowl lifties, professionally dressed riders, and skiers and boarders ready to shred.

“It started as this itty bitty rural bus,” said Theresa Christopherson, manager of the Mount Hood Express, “and now it’s doing amazing things.”

From its first year grand total of 60 rides, the Mt. Hood Express grew exponentially. It the past year, it carried 66,167 riders. While many are skiers, 40% of the bus’s core ridership relies on transit to reach jobs at Timberline, Ski Bowl and small businesses in Government Camp.

“It’s an essential connection service to get people to jobs,” Christopherson said. “It’s not just a ski bus.”

The employees I rode with had some horror stories about missing a bus and getting stranded on the mountain. But they also rode it often and regarded the service with affection.

IMG 0741Timberline Lodge, the terminus of the Mount Hood Express

The Mt. Hood Express, operated by Clackamas County Social Services, receives 10% of its funding from private partners Timberline and Skibowl. Besides relying on it as workforce transportation, resorts see transit as good marketing.

“Meadows can get bad publicity with overall transportation,” said Jake Bolland, Meadows’ COO. “Especially on a busy winter weekend.”  

Bolland also serves on the Hood River County Transportation District. He would like to see the Express, which currently terminates at Timberline Lodge, extended to Meadows. Planners determined those last seven miles would overwhelm the system. But as Bolland says, “that seems backwards from the goal of the project.”

Meadows' trailhead parking lots overflow during the peak season, and congestion can turn employees’ eight-hour shifts into twelve-hour ordeals.

“When they have to leave work that’s when everybody’s leaving Mount Hood,” he said. “You can lose positions if you’re asking somebody to be gone for most of the day.”

Meadows runs its own employee shuttles to Hood River and Sandy, but it’s not enough. The Mount Hood loop could provide another option.

“We need to continue with additional routes and investment,” Bolland said, “to realize the ultimate benefit transit can provide.”

IMG 0747Inside historic Timberline Lodge

Funding Anxiety

These bus services provide essential transportation to many commuters and companies, and open public wilderness lands to more urban residents. But these projects face constant anxiety over their temporary grant funding. The biggest question for planners involved with the Gorge loop is how to secure permanent funds.

“There’s way more need up there than we’re able to serve. We desperately could use a couple more buses.” Christopherson said.

About 60% of Mt. Hood Express $450,000 operating costs comes from grants. Another 15% comes from fares. The Gorge Express has secured grant funding for three years out, Warr said, but didn’t receive any money from HB 2017. A FLAP grant will support the Hood River-Government Camp bus for two years, and could be renewed with good performance.

Unlike services run by public transit agencies, the Mt. Hood Express doesn’t benefit from property or payroll taxes.

“If there should be a temporary cutback because of the way the wind blows at the state and federal level,” Christopherson said, “there isn’t a core source of funding to draw on.” 

 

busisbackRead the other articles in our Bus is Back series.

The Bus is Back: A special series exploring bus initiatives across Oregon

Eugene expands 'Emerald Express' Bus Rapid Transit system

Salem experiments with an on-demand bus

 

 

Caleb Diehl

Caleb Diehl is a reporter at Oregon Business

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