Gridlock in Great Falls

Gridlock in Great Falls

Congestion worsens at the entrance to the Great Falls Park.

Continued growth in visitors to the Great Falls Park and limited parking spaces create back-ups on weekends, holidays and when the weather is nice. The traffic makes advancing through the intersection at Georgetown Pike and Old Dominion Drive difficult.

Continued growth in visitors to the Great Falls Park and limited parking spaces create back-ups on weekends, holidays and when the weather is nice. The traffic makes advancing through the intersection at Georgetown Pike and Old Dominion Drive difficult. Photo by Fallon Forbush.

2017 Fee-Free Days at Great Falls National Park

Park hours are 7 a.m. to dark, daily. It costs $10 to enter the park for each vehicle and its passengers. The cost to the park is reduced to $5 for each individual entering by foot, bicycle or horse, with the exception of active duty military personnel and dependents and all children 15 years old and younger, who can enter for free. Annual passes are also available for purchase. 2017 fee-free dates include:

  • Jan. 16: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • Feb. 20: Presidents' Day
  • April 15-16: 1st Weekend of National Park Week
  • April 22-23: 2nd Weekend of National Park Week
  • Aug. 25: National Park Service Birthday
  • Sept. 30: National Public Lands Day
  • Nov. 11-12: Veterans Day Weekend

Park popularity has been identified as the culprit behind congestion and gridlock issues in a rural area of Great Falls.

The source of the problem is the entrance of the Great Falls Park that is located at the end of Old Dominion Drive, which can become backed up with traffic. This congestion causes issues for residents who live on the street and whose only access to their driveways are off of Old Dominion Drive. When traffic is at its peak, the congestion also causes unsafe and frustrating driving conditions at the intersection of Old Dominion Drive and Georgetown Pike — about a mile away from the park entrance.

“This has been going on for at least two years,” Pamela Grosvenor, chair of the Great Falls Citizens Association Transportation Committee, said of the gridlock.

At her committee’s June 6 and July 12 meetings, local residents and staff from Supervisor John Foust’s office met with representatives from the National Park Service and the U.S. Park Police to discuss the ongoing problem.

“While the neighbors are concerned, I think everyone is trying to minimize the impacts at the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Old Dominion Drive,” said Aaron LaRocca, a spokesperson for the National Park Service.

During the past two years the National Park Service has increased entrance fees and taken steps to reduce the processing time it takes to collect payment at the gate from more than 620,000 annual visitors to the park.

These improvements included installing a Tier 1, fiber optic internet connection at the entry booth, which can carry more data than its previous system; upgrading the point of sale system; and receiving a waiver from credit card companies that allow staff members to forgo pin codes to process debit payments, according to LaRocca.

“We are confident that it’s working because we went from about 30 days of impacting the intersection last year to about six days of impacting the intersection so far this year,” LaRocca said.

Now the traffic is more weather-dependent.

Days when traffic impacts the intersection tend to be earlier in the spring, “when people are done hibernating in the winter and they happen sometimes as you get into the really nice days in the fall,” LaRocca said.

The National Park Service will be conducting a traffic study for the Great Falls Park later in the year, but the agency is working with the GFCA to find a solution to the problem in the meantime.

A SOLUTION that will be tested the next time the intersection is impacted is what the GFCA and park employees are calling a carousel, which would go into effect when the 536 parking spaces at the park are full or when the line of traffic stretches down to the intersection.

“The carousel concept was that once traffic started building up down Old Dominion Drive that you would begin the circulation of vehicles through the entrance station U-turning back towards Georgetown Pike,” Alexcy Romero, superintendent of the National Capital Parks-East for the National Park Service, said at the meeting. “We would create this carousel effect of vehicles, allowing our visitors to make the U-turn and then identifying a time of when the park would be re-opening so they could recirculate back.”

The National Park Service has purchased equipment, including signage for the park entrance, and the U.S. Park Police are on board with testing the system, according to Romero.

Debate at the July 12 meeting then occurred about why signage couldn’t be placed at the intersection of Georgetown Pike and Old Dominion Drive. This would alert park goers before they made a trek down the road and were forced to turn around and become stuck in a long line of traffic.

“I’m in line and then you tell me after I’ve finally reached the end of the line to turn around, I’m not turning, I’m waiting for the next car to go out,” Karl Pierson, GFCA Transportation Committee member, said at the meeting. “You’re going to have a battle royal.”

Grosvenor said she has contacted the Virginia Department of Transportation about placing a sign or a notification system at the intersection to alert passengers and that engineers would be discussing the matter, she said at the meeting.

“The general concept is to let people know not to continue down Old Dominion,” Grosvenor said.

All were in agreement in connecting VDOT with the National Park Service to work on getting signage at the intersection — whether it be electronic and capable of being remotely activated or temporarily set up by hand.

“We all agreed that there would be huge negative reaction, so we need to help our park brethren manage that reaction as much as we can,” Philip Pifer, GFCA vice president, said at the meeting. “At least then you could defend yourselves with the irate people that go all the way down the road by saying, ‘Did you see the park closed sign?’” he added.

Softening the blow was also an idea committee members had.

“For the people that are waiting in line and get carouseled back, there are local merchants in the area who may be able to provide a coupon that you could give to the people you’re turning around that would give them a place to go for an hour or two to grab an ice cream cone, grab a beer or whatever and be good for our local economy and be a measure of good faith on your part that you’re recognizing it’s inconvenient,” Pifer said.

The carousel will be implemented by the U.S. Park Police, according to Romero.

“We were talking about a variety of scenarios that could happen and what to expect, but whenever we do put this into effect, the Park Police will be there to help us enforce,” Romero said. “We’re going to expect angry visitors.”

ANOTHER OPTION the GFCA is considering advocating for are employing crossing guards or police officers to manage traffic at the intersection when it gets backed up.

“If traffic is stretching almost to the intersection, it will take 25 minutes to get a half-mile or so to my driveway,” John Ulfelder, who lives in one of the homes on the portion of Old Dominion Drive that is impacted by the traffic, said at the meeting.

Traffic has been backing up to Ulfelder’s driveway and the 10 homes on that portion of Old Dominion for years, but has gotten heavier, he said.

“The problem is the weekends where it really, really, really backs up or the lot fills and they can’t let any more cars in without somebody leaving,” he said. “That’s when it gets really bad.”

He says the weekend backups usually don’t start until after 10 a.m. and go until about 4 p.m.

“My wife and I now plan our weekends to accommodate for that,” he said. “If we want to have guests over during the weekend, that’s an issue. I have to tell them to come early.”

In the future, the National Park Service has a goal of implementing a reservation system to better manage the flow of traffic into the park.

“The carousel is just a pilot,” Romero said at the meeting. “We don’t know how it will work.”