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A three-year rock-blasting project to widen Highway 26 may commit a few Silent Rock infractions, but it should also make the trip back to Portland safer.

A three-year rock-blasting project to widen Highway 26 may commit a few Silent Rock infractions, but it should also make the trip back to Portland safer.

Work is scheduled to begin in April 2014 on a rock-blasting project that will widen Highway 26, extend westbound passing lanes and build a 2.3-mile concrete median just west of Skibowl.

The Oregon Department of Transportation decided on a concrete barrier for this hazardous section of Hwy. 26 after an audit identified 75 crashes there since 2002 that killed three people and injured 69. The worst of these accidents involved downhill-bound vehicles skidding out on ice, crossing over the median and crashing head-on into uphill travelers. The point of the new median is to prevent precisely that type of accident.

"Our focus is on preventing people from dying and getting seriously injured in these severe crashes," says ODOT spokeswoman Kimbery Dinwiddie. "We’re just trying to make the road as safe as possible."

The $25 million project will also extend passing lanes for westbound travelers by an additional 1400 feet on each end. Unfortunately, it will not eliminate single-lane westbound travel between Timberline Road and Skibowl West, so hour-long back-ups on the ice can be expected as usual during popular winter weekends.

Workers will blast rock from cliffs 120 feet high to widen the highway and make room for the new median. They will also install fences to keep falling rocks out of the road.  The work will continue for three years or more, April through October, and yes, there will be delays. As in hour-long delays, three days a week, between 5:30 and 7 pm. One lane will be closed during the project months, and thousands of trucks will be on the mountain hauling rock and debris to dump sites.

But it could have been worse. The heavy blasting will take place in early summer evenings when there is still plenty of light but traffic is not so heavy. Believe it or not, the original plan was to do the blasting starting at 7 am, just as the hordes of racers, campers, freeskiers and snowboarders are starting to head up the mountain to get their summer shred on at Timberline. That would have been a fiasco.

As it is, these highway workers will be in blatant violation of the no-noise-at-Silent-Rock superstition. May the mountain have mercy on them.

Opinions differ on the reason behind the belief that it is bad luck to make noise in the vicinity of Silent Rock. Legend has it that when road crews blasted rocks to put through the original road, falling rocks either disturbed a holy burial ground or killed a Native American youth, depending on which version the teller of the tale prefers. A more cynical view holds that a bus driver tired of screaming kids warned them with a ghost tale to shut them up. My take on Silent Rock has to do with a simple moment of respect for the power and beauty of Mount Hood. Either way, it's a widespread superstition that is about to be put to the test.

"We do make a lot of noise up there with our projects on Mount Hood and nothing bad has happened," says Dinwiddie.

Knock on wood.

ODOT has pledged to avoid damaging cultural resources, wetlands, and Mount Hood wildlife, especially sensitive species such as the red-legged frog, the Larch Mountain salamander and the Northern spotted owl. The project will involve the excavating and transport of about a million cubic yards of rock and soil. Nearby hiking trails will be temporarily closed, and future access to the Mirror Lake trailhead will be problematic for westbound travelers, because the new median will block the left-hand turn to the trail.

Also, if there is a really nasty crash in winter, the median could make it harder for vehicles to get around the accident site.

The median is the biggest immediate improvement planned for Hwy. 26, but there are plenty of other ideas about how to improve transportation on Mount Hood. The 40 potential initiatives under consideration range from an elaborate shuttle bus system to an aerial tram with a park-and-ride in Govy.

Got ideas? We're all ears.