With potential danger from rockfalls along State Route 14 through the Columbia River Gorge a fact of life, the route may be getting a facelift soon -- or sooner of later.
The Washington Department of Transportation has identified 32 trouble spots rated as presenting the most serious hazard to motorists along an 85-mile stretch of SR 14, basically from Washougal to Lyle.
However, plans to stabilize the slopes will be tackled on a "when funds are available" basis. As a result, the project is expected to be staged over 20 years.
"The problem is, we have a limited amount of money and we have to compete statewide," said Chuck Ruhsenberger, area engineer for WDOT's Columbia Gorge region, based in Vancouver. "There are so many needs, but there are limits on the amount of money."
In a consultant's report released in December, WDOT describes the problem matter-of-factly: "Throughout its length, SR 14 is affected by numerous unstable slope problems. In the past, WDOT has responded to these problems in a reactive manner through road cleanup and emergency repairs," read an excerpt from Seattle-based Herrera Environmental Consultants' report. "This practice is expensive and inefficient. These unstable sites pose a physical danger to the traveling public ... slope failures can cause auto accidents, injury, or even death. Slope failures can also result in road closures, traffic delays, and detours, which disrupt tourism traffic, affecting the economies of local communities."
According to Ruhsenberger, three sites -- all in the Cape Horn (milepost 25) area of Skamania County -- are first in line to get corrective action. Work is planned to begin there in April 2004. The estimated cost to stabilize slopes at the Cape Horn sites totals approximately $358,000.
Three other slopes (two sites at MP 54 and another at MP 59) are on a long-range schedule for action, but the "start date" for those projects is not until 2006.
Two rockfall sites have been identified in the Underwood area: MP 62.5 and MP 63.0. The Klickitat/Skamania county line is at MP 63.5.
In Klickitat County, three sites were identified: MP 73.2, MP 76.9 (Lyle tunnel), and MP 77.3.
Ruhsenberger said the high cliffs a couple miles east of Bingen, where rocks are often seen on the highway, are "under special consideration." But he conceded no action there will be coming soon.
"We're having a hard time with that one. I'd like to get it included, because it's a pretty significant site in terms of its size," he explained. "That site is so immense it's hard to find a solution, and it would take a lot of money to address."
A management plan for many of the unstable slopes along the highway has been in the works since at least 1993.
"It could take a period of time to fix all the sites. We'd probably do one or two a year," Ruhsenberger said. "We can fix almost anything if we have enough money, but there is a limited amount, so we have to attack the biggest and easiest problems first. Sites that produce a lot of rock and don't cost much to fix get done first."
Methods for stabilizing the rock slopes include everything from blasting to installing rock anchors and/or wire-mesh netting. In some cases, even realigning roads to move them away from the danger of rockfalls will be considered.