Managers of the Great Falls National Park have disavowed a neighborhood rumor that they want to build a new exit from the park via a fire road that would connect with Weant Drive in Great Falls.
At an informational meeting last week, a number of people concerned about the rumor gathered on the ground floor at the Grange as others were reviewing chart and maps of the National Park that were displayed in the Old Schoolhouse.
“We don’t know how that got started,” said Audrey Calhoun, superintendent of the George Washington National Parkway, the National Park Service Division that administers Great Falls National Park. “We have no immediate plans to open up that fire road to let traffic through.
“While it has to be studied, there is no decision made on that at all. We have to study it in order to eliminate it,” Calhoun said.
“What we are doing is going through a planning process, taken up about every 10-to 15 years, by which the Park Service looks at all of its services and makes a plan for them.”
“All of these are public processes,” Calhoun said. “We never do anything without having public input along the way. We are a federal park, and the park belongs to the people.”
“We call on them to help decide what the problems are and what the solutions should be,” Calhoun said.
“We are at the first stage: trying to decide what the problems are.
On about 20 of the prettiest days of the year, usually in the fall and spring, traffic backs up along the two-lane entrance road into the park, an extension of Old Dominion Drive that was originally a trolley track that brought visitors to the park from Washington, D.C.
Then, “It is car out, car in,” said John Ulfelder, planning and zoning committee chairman for the Great Falls Citizens Association and one of 10 immediate neighbors of Great Falls National Park. “Everyone has to sit and wait. It is always on weekends or holidays” when that occurs, he said.
“I and my neighbors remain concerned. It is not only a nuisance, but a safety concern,” he said. Emergency vehicles would have to travel the wrong way in the exit lane to reach any of the 10 houses that are accessed solely from Old Dominion Drive.
Nonetheless, “We are not going to recommend that they open up another point of access,” Ulfelder said. “There are other things they can do to address the congestion problems on certain weekends.”
“We think they need to do a better job of monitoring the backup. When the lines are getting long, they could go up to that intersection where there is a park policeman or a Fairfax County officer, or put up sawhorses when the traffic gets stuck up there.“
Another problem is that once a driver commits by turning north onto Old Dominion Drive, there is no place to turn around and exit if they don’t want to endure a long wait to enter the park.
Calhoun said park managers are looking at a number of ideas, including adding a third lane to Old Dominion Drive or shuttling park visitors in and out.
Parking will also be looked at, she said.
Ulfelder said the idea of creating another exit from the park is not new.
And neighbors of the park may have been upset by the memory of another meeting some years ago, when it was suggested that a fire road could be connected to Weant Drive. Nothing ever happened as a result of that idea.
Just the same, “Some of the folks who live up in the area became a little unhinged” before the Park Service’s meeting last week, Ulfelder said . “That group galvanized, and they were at the meeting.
There was some lengthy discussion.”
“Calhoun said clearly and definitively that was not in their plans, and they would not consider it at the time. She was quite vigorous.” Ulfelder said.
Last spring, the park service destroyed a small entrance station at the north end of Old Dominion Drive and is building a new, larger one that will have two windows.
Funds for that construction will come a $1 million fund replenished from entrance fees, said a park official.
Great Falls Park gets some money for improvements from its own entrance fees, but the operational budget comes from the federal government through the National Park Service.
Money from a cell phone tower at the park goes into the NPS’s general budget, Calhoun said.
The NPS is also trying to improve a ramp at Sandy Landing where fire and rescue personnel put in their boats in emergencies.
Restrooms at the park need to be adapted to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the trail network in the park is being reviewed, also.
“We are still trying to assess the comments” from last week’s meeting, Calhoun said. “We will have a couple of public meetings along the way.”
For more information, visit the Park Service’s web site: www.nps.gov/grfa, or write to Audrey Calhoun, Superintendent, George Washington National Parkway, Turkey Run Park, McLean, VA, 22101, to be added to the mailing list.