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Safety First, but Preserving Character Also Key to Design

Park officials looking for public comment on plans to add a bike lane to the entrance road, other renovations to C&O Canal National Historical Park at Great Falls.

The Great Falls Tavern, the road that leads into the park and the parking areas at C&O Canal National Historical Park will undergo major renovations starting next year.

The planned projects include adding a 3-foot shoulder to the entrance road, eliminating the parking closest to the Tavern and replacing it with re-graded greenspace, building a new comfort station (restroom building) in a new location, and making improvements to the Tavern and Tavern yard.

Park officials and officials from the Federal Highway Administration Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division met with community members Nov. 18 to gather input on the plans and discuss the environmental assessment for the project, which was released Nov. 8.

The highway administration has jurisdiction over Great Falls Road — the road leading from MacArthur Boulevard down the hill to the ranger booth—because it is entirely on federally-owned land. The Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service will work cooperatively on the renovations.

“THE BIGGEST THING, the number one thing is improved safety in the park,” said Robert H. Hartman Jr., chief of maintenance for the park. The secondary goals, he said, were “improved bus and auto circulation once you get into the park, and retaining that park-like character as you see it now as you drive into Great Falls down the entrance road and then improved pedestrian and bicycle access,” and to “evoke the historic Tavern area.”

“This is a combination of two projects together. We didn’t quite have enough with the Great Falls Tavern project to warrant an individual, separate [environmental assessment], but some things really needed some consideration … so the Federal Highways Administration was good enough to include the work we were going to do on the Tavern into this Environmental Assessment,” Hartman said.

Tentatively, the Tavern project is expected to start in Sept. or Oct. 2005 and continue until about Aug. 2006 while the road project would start around spring of 2006 and continue until the summer of 2007. The tavern project will cost $1.7 million and the road project $2 million according to preliminary estimates. The money for both projects will come from federal appropriations.

Tavern and Tavern yard

Work on Great Falls Tavern will include improved fire protection and a revamped heating and air conditioning system. Repairs will be made to deteriorating plaster and drywall inside the building and three more entry doors will made Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant.

The fences around the tavern will be pushed outward, creating more open space around the historic building and, the park staff hopes, making the Tavern more inviting to park guests.

“We tried to be more evocative of this period of significance … this 1870s to 1900 time period when the canal was at its heyday,” park Superintendent Kevin Brandt said.

New flood protections are also part of the tavern renovation plan. Park officials had considered an elaborate, engineered system which would be incorporated into the landscape but found, they said, a cheaper alternative that is just as effective in the form of “Gabion Walls.” The “walls” are actually hollow, one cubic yard blocks that are filled with sand during floods. The blocks can be linked and stacked in various arrangements like Legos—as high as 9 feet.

The money saved by using the less costly walls was poured back into the Tavern renovations, officials said.

Parking area

Improvements will be made to the pavement, curbs, and drainage of the upper parking area, while the lower parking area will be eliminated and turned into a sloped, landscaped green area. The rotary will be reduced to a uniform 22-foot width with the addition of a dedicated short-term drop off area. All existing sidewalks would be paved over with exposed aggregate concrete walks that have a look evocative of the packed gravel that was used in the late 19th century but is capable of supporting heavy machines and is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The comfort station would be located above the new path angling through the former parking area.

Entrance road

The original plan for the entrance road called for the addition of a bikeway that would link up with the county bikeway that runs along Falls Road.

In the course of researching options for the road, park officials discovered that the present road alignment had existed since 1890 or earlier and decided that the significant widening of the road necessary to install a signed bikeway would be too damaging to the area. Park documents suggest eight alternatives for improving the existing 24-foot cross section made up of two 12-foot travel lanes.

The “preferred alternative” is to widen the cross section to 26 feet: two ten-foot travel lanes and two three-foot shoulders.

Community members objected that the proposed change actually narrows the travel lanes of an already curvy and sometimes dangerous road, but park staff said that due to deterioration the current driveable surface is less than 12 feet — probably closer to nine or 10 — and that’s without the cushion of a paved shoulder.

At the same time the current plan does less to accommodate bicyclists than some of the other proposals. The proposals included cross-sections as wide as 32 feet — either two 11-foot lanes with five foot shoulders or two 11-foot lanes with an eight-foot bikeway and a two-foot barrier separating the bikeway from the road.

“We have had to make some painful choices in here,” Brandt said. “As we looked at the alternatives for trying to improve safety on that road it was a real balancing act between trying to provide for safety provide some improved access for people on foot and on bikes as well as protecting what is one of the character-defining features of that entrance road, [which] is the trees that are growing up and over it.

“If we were to build a road now you could never get vegetation to establish itself on steep slopes like that but because that road has been there more than 100 years it has naturalized by itself over that century … and we want to do as little as possible to disturb that.”

“We’re trying to figure the best way to improve access to the park down the main road by folks with bicycles, and we’re not talking about the Lance Armstrong wanna-bes,” Hartman said. “We’re talking about mom and pop and the kids that they want to ride their bikes into the park.”

The shoulders will be separated from the road by a solid white line, but will not be marked as bikeways, Brandt said. “We have to comply with federal highway standards, and a three-foot shoulder just doesn’t comply, and in fact until we get up to a five foot lane in one direction with traffic we can’t consider it an official bike lane,” he said.

Voicing concerns

Of the 20 or so people present at Thursday’s meeting, nearly ten were representatives of the Federal Highway Administration or National Park Service, and most of the rest were residents who are also members of either the C&O Canal Association or the Friends of Historic Great Falls Tavern.

Concerns ranged from objections that the entrance road will be too narrow to objections that the proposed shoulders should be not be advertised as bike paths since experienced riders will use the road anyway and less experienced riders may not feel comfortable on a three-foot separated shoulder that is not separated from the road.

“Serious road bikers, they have no problem. They zoom down and they crank up. … But I think that you will find that the bike riders will now be doing what they always do, and that is parking where there’s good parking and riding level on the towpath,” said Jo Reynolds of the C&O Canal Association who supported the entrance road plan but said she hoped that pedestrians would use the internal route of the Gold Mine Trails while bikers remain judicious in deciding whether to use the road.

Another concern voiced both at the Thursday meeting and the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board meeting Nov. 15 involved the new houses at the Fawsett Farms site on the corner of Falls Road and MacArthur Boulevard. The corner of the lot there has long served as informal overflow parking, but the new homes will eliminate the gravel parking area now used by people who enter the park on their bicycles. Some cars have already begun parking on Fawsett on some days. Residents are concerned that more cars will park on nearby streets.

But park officials said they hoped that the elimination of that parking would force visitors either to enter the park at Great Falls and pay the fee or to drive to Old Angler’s Inn or Carderock, park for free and ride up. With towpath improvements at widewater slated to be done this summer, riding into the Great Falls area on a bicycle from either the Old Angler’s access or the Carderock area should no longer be a problem. For many years, part of the towpath between Angler’s and Great Falls has been impassable by bicycle.

“You’re all fresh eyes on this,” Brandt said to the group at the meeting. “We’ve been working on this on depth for several years, so we do want your thoughts. You know, does this sound like a bunch of malarkey or does it stand up?”

“Everybody wants to come to the canal because it’s a beautiful place. Historically it was an industrial site … and it takes kind of industrial level repairs to fix it. That’s why there are big piles of dirt and heavy equipment around,” Brandt said. “But that doesn’t mesh with the idea that the canal is a beautiful place so balancing that sometimes gets to be a hard thing to do.”