Oregon Department of Transportation’s waterfall shuttle service rolls eastward to Hood River this summer.
The “Columbia Gorge Express,” now in its third year, will reach beyond its former link points — Portland and Multnomah Falls — on to Cascade Locks and Hood River.
The bus expectedly takes off Memorial Day weekend, May 25, ODOT’s target date.
Jake Warr, Columbia Gorge Express manager, said ODOT’s expansion marks a change from the program’s simpler roots.
“We’re really working to move beyond it being a shuttle to Multnomah Falls, to more of a transit service to the Gorge,” Warr said.
The program re-starts at the end of May, but later in the summer more changes could come.
More service days are coming, starting in June, according to ODOT. The new schedule will be based on feedback.
Formerly a weekend service, the state transportation agency is considering adding four to five trips every day from Portland to Hood River. It will be a year-round service, but with fewer trips on the off-season, after Labor Day.
The Hood River stop will be at port property on the waterfront, near Valero gas station. The Cascade Locks site isn’t determined yet.
Bus fare rates also aren’t settled for the Portland-Hood River route. Warr said tickets will be more expensive than the Portland-Multnomah Falls trip, but will remain affordable.
The shorter waterfall excursion has been $5 per round trip, though that could also change. (In its original form, the shuttle looped between Gateway Transit Center, Rooster Rock, and Multnomah Falls.)
Gorge Express has exceeded expectations in popularity and its reception, according to Warr.
In 2017, 99 percent of surveyed riders said they would recommend the Gorge Express to others. ODOT clocked about 550 rides per day, a 10 percent increase from the year before.
To help understand what the public wants in changes, ODOT is asking for input through an online survey. ODOT is asking people what they think about service hours and frequency, price of bus fare, new stop locations, and amenities at the stops.
The survey asks participants a bevy of questions, such as how often they travel, where they travel, and the nature of their trips. Some new possible stops listed in the ranks: Bonneville Dam, Wyeth State Park, and Viento State Park.
It presents expansion alternatives, such as more frequent service to Hood River, more trips between Portland and Multnomah Falls, or boosting service hours on weekends and weekdays.
The program was launched in 2016 with grant support. The Express is paid for through a combination of federal and state public transportation funds that ODOT has allocated to the project, including funding through the Federal Lands Access Program.
ODOT has a few staff members overseeing Gorge Express, but the agency contracts with a private operator, MTR Western, for the bulk of work and gear — bus fleet, drivers, and dispatchers.
One of Gorge Express’s missions is to cut back on visitor impacts at Multnomah Falls, by reducing the number of cars filling up the popular site.
“Extended transit service will help address congestion and improve accessibility for those who live in the Gorge and visitors traveling to recreation sites from the east and west,” ODOT states in a newsletter.
In an overarching congestion goal, ODOT and partners are working on a Historic Highway Congestion and Transportation Safety Improvement plan.
Last year, the bus had to stop a few weeks early due to the Eagle Creek fire. Its return in May will bring access to destinations that are reopened to the public, like the Multnomah Falls lodge.
For the Gorge Express survey, ODOT recommends people submit their ideas before April 11 at columbiagorgeexpress.com/survey2018.