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'Bicycles are welcome,' Parkway super says

Published December 13, 2011

ASHEVILLE, NC (BRAIN)—Blue Ridge Parkway superintendent Phil Francis told Bicycle Retailer on Tuesday that the Parkway’s managers have never considered banning bikes from the road. He said that a draft management plan, which the public can comment upon until this Friday, has been mischaracterized. But he also said that severe budget cuts at the National Park Service property mean it’s unlikely the Parkway will make the improvements or increase access that many cyclists would like to see.

On Monday BR&IN reported on the draft management plan, which has many cyclists and retailers along the 469-mile corridor concerned. However, BR&IN was not able to reach a park representative until Tuesday morning. What follows is a transcribed interview with Francis. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the full 26-minute telephone interview (including awkward small talk), you can download the WMA file.

Q:

The big question is to what extent the Parkway will welcome and encourage cycling going forward?

A:

Well, it’s amazing to me that someone would read that document and come to some conclusion that is so wildly different from our intent. Our intent is to continue to welcome bicyclists as we always have. To make reference to the enabling legislation that created the park in the 1930s and to then conclude that the park is not welcoming bicycles anymore is quite amazing. Our plan is to continue to welcome bicyclists; we are not planning to change our policy at all.

Q:

The plan actually includes the creation of a multi-use path parallel to the Parkway?

A:

That parallel multi-use trail should have been deleted, that was a mistake. There should be an addendum that points that out. The parallel trails that we had hoped to consider just aren’t feasible financially. We have a $300 million (park maintenance) backlog currently. If you look at the level of funding we get each year, which is declining, there is no possible way financially for us to fund our backlog, much less add additional resources. The total value of the resources we have to manage is $5.2 billion. We get $16 million a year to manage 600 buildings, 100 waste water treatment plants, 469 miles of road, 77 cemeteries, 14 visitor centers, 16 million people, 3,300 law enforcement incidents. It is just not possible with this economic climate … to think about adding infrastructure. It isn’t going to happen.

Q:

Does your favored management option include any capital improvements?

A:

$73 million is the number and most of that is to do something that would actually be good for bicycle riders I think, which is to provide for grade-separated structures. That doesn’t come from our budget, it comes from the Federal Highway Administration budget.

(Editor's note:Grade-separated structures” replace four-way-stop intersections with on-ramps and off-ramps)

Q:

I noticed the preferred management option also calls for some increased mountain bike access.

A:

Yeah, we had talked about at one point considering mountain biking in one particular area along the Parkway and my concern is that once again, every activity we allow on the Parkway requires staff resources and we are getting smaller, not bigger or staying the same, and so the capacity to manage activities is certainly a concern of mine. We’ve got buildings that are falling down that we can’t take care of, so how could we manage a new activity?

There are some references to (mountain biking access in the draft). We are not opposed to it, not at all, we realize that it’s an activity a lot of people engage in, and it’s an activity that I don’t think would have the kind of resource impacts that we once thought. We did a lot of research and determined that mountain biking does not have an adverse impact to resources. The impact would come in other ways, in terms of managing the activity on the ground. Our rangers are spread so thin right now … whenever we decide to look at whatever the new activity might be, whether it’s mountain biking, or new areas for climbing, or new areas for horseback riding, we’ve got to consider our ability to manage it.

Q:

The Parkway is seeking to become a National Historic Landmark, what would that do for you? There is concern among bike advocates that it would make it difficult to add shoulders to the road or paths.

A:

It certainly adds an additional layer of protection. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be impacts; it means that we have to give them additional consideration before making decisions. That would be true if we were to add a new building or change the footprint of a picnic area. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen, it means we have to consider what the impacts are. It wouldn’t have any impact at all on the use of the Parkway as it is used today.

Q:

The Parkway is known for its narrow twisty roads and its stone walls; adding a shoulder or a bike lane might change that aesthetic in a way that historians would object to.

A:

I think it would be more difficult to find the funding to do that! I don’t know the cost, but it’s not cheap.

We have pretty good interactions right now between people who are in motorized vehicles and people who are not. It’s certainly not perfect, and like anyplace else we are continually trying to educate people on how to share the road.

Q:

In the draft plan, a summary of the management’s preferred option states that the park “would be actively managed as a traditional, self-contained, scenic recreational driving experience and designed landscape.” Other places in the draft plan mention conflicts between drivers and bikes and other challenges of having bikes on the Parkway. I think what concerns bike advocates is that, given the emphasis on driving, those conflicts would tend to be resolved in favor of driving, not biking.

A:

Maybe we should have been more clear about where those statements came from. Every planning document I’ve ever seen makes reference to the reason that the park was created. If you look at the legislation that created the park, that (driving) is what they had in mind … Those words came from that time in that context. In no way do those words mean we can’t have bicycles.

Q:

Have you been surprised by the reaction to the plan from the cycling community?

A:

I’ve been disappointed. Because a word went out before anyone contacted us. I wasn’t called to confirm … people oftentimes come to conclusions without looking at the facts. In this case we could have confirmed the facts and these stories wouldn’t have been created. The fact is we’ve never had a discussion about limiting bicycle use as part of the GMP process, not since I’ve been here.

Q:

How many comments have you received on the draft?

A:

Last I heard the number was around 500, but I suspect that number has increased considerably. Some came in today in my inbox. And all but one were bicycle (-related). A lot of people seem to think I intend to restrict or reduce or eliminate bicycles from the Parkway, and it’s just not true.

We’ll be considering (the comments) as part of our general comment analysis. That means our staff will go to a great deal of effort to evaluate all the comments. And I got a phone call from a guy who doesn’t like bicycles on the Parkway. He left a message yesterday that he wants me to ban them all. And the horseback riders came out pretty strongly against mountain biking because they don’t agree with this concept of mixed use.

Q:

What’s the next step in the process?

A:

The next step will be to go through an evaluation of the comments and provide consideration for all those comments. And we take that responsibility very seriously. While it’s not a vote, we look at the merits of each comment to see how we might adjust the plan, if we can. Then we will prepare the final document, it will be reviewed by our Washington office, and we will release a record of decision next year, late next year.

So I hope you will tell your readers that bicycling is welcome on the Parkway.

—Steve Frothingham
sfrothingham@bicycleretailer.com

Topics associated with this article: Advocacy/Non-profits

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