Ask not for whom the Parkway tolls: It tolls for thee

Dan Casey of The Roanoke Times wants to charge tolls for those of us who use the Blue Ridge Parkway to get from Point A to Point B.

Writes Casey in Thursday's Times:

If you're in a hurry and you need to get from Clearbrook in southern Roanoke County to the eastern county section of Bonsack, there is exactly one quick and hassle-free road you want to take: the Blue Ridge Parkway.

So many Roanoke-area drivers have happily discovered this nifty National Park Service shortcut that it's often swarming with rush-hour motorists. Some wags already call it the "Wal-Mart Expressway."

Spend any weekday evening on that gorgeous blacktop ribbon and you'll see what I mean. Long lines of hurrying-to-get-home commuters zip along at 50 to 60 mph or so, unimpeded by traffic lights, stop signs or typical traffic bottlenecks.

That's one of the reasons it's time to reconsider an idea floated but rebuffed in the past: tolls, or some sort of fee system, for parkway users who get a free ride now.

If you're thinking, "That darn Casey is one of those infernal parkway bicyclists who doesn't like all that traffic," you're partly right.

But what you may not know is that all those motorists are helping to wear out that beautiful road much faster than the National Park Service's repaving budget can handle.

As one who often uses the Parkway as an alternate route from home to Roanoke, my first thought is "wow, Casey must be smoking some of Floyd County's primary cash crop." The last thing we need in these over-taxed times is yet another way to separate cash-strapped locals from their hard-earned bucks.

Park roads often serve as commuter routes. In the Washington area, the George Washington Parkway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the roads that wind through the National Mall -- all parts of the federal park system -- serve as primary routes during rush hour. I used them often during our 23 yeas in the National Capital Region.

Yes, the Parkway is far, far behind in maintenance projects but the crumbling roads exist not so much because commuters are pounding the pavement into dust but because the feds diverted much of the Parkway's budget to other areas -- like the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You find potholes and cracked pavement on the Parkway on areas not used by commuter traffic. Try driving south of Meadows of Dan and the pavement will pound your fillings loose.  The road there is in far worse shape than the stretch that runs from U.S. 220 to U.S. 460 in Roanoke County.

A major repaving and rehab project is underway on the stretch that runs down Bent Mountain but attention is needed elsewhere.

Perhaps the Parkway would be better served if elected representatives like Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) spent more time getting the Parkway funds for maintenance instead of concentrating on funding monuments to themselves like the Blue Ridge Music and Rockey Knob Visitor's centers.

Perhaps those of us who drive the Parkway would be better served if the political appointees who run the Parkway would budget funds for upkeep instead of using limited resources to create Gestapo-like "criminal interdiction teams" to harass users of the region's primary tourist attraction.

(Edited on March 28, 2009)

Dan Casey of The Roanoke Times wants to charge tolls for those of us who use the Blue Ridge Parkway to get from Point A to Point B.

Writes Casey in Thursday’s Times:

If you’re in a hurry and you need to get from Clearbrook in southern Roanoke County to the eastern county section of Bonsack, there is exactly one quick and hassle-free road you want to take: the Blue Ridge Parkway.

So many Roanoke-area drivers have happily discovered this nifty National Park Service shortcut that it’s often swarming with rush-hour motorists. Some wags already call it the "Wal-Mart Expressway."

Spend any weekday evening on that gorgeous blacktop ribbon and you’ll see what I mean. Long lines of hurrying-to-get-home commuters zip along at 50 to 60 mph or so, unimpeded by traffic lights, stop signs or typical traffic bottlenecks.

That’s one of the reasons it’s time to reconsider an idea floated but rebuffed in the past: tolls, or some sort of fee system, for parkway users who get a free ride now.

If you’re thinking, "That darn Casey is one of those infernal parkway bicyclists who doesn’t like all that traffic," you’re partly right.

But what you may not know is that all those motorists are helping to wear out that beautiful road much faster than the National Park Service’s repaving budget can handle.

As one who often uses the Parkway as an alternate route from home to Roanoke, my first thought is "wow, Casey must be smoking some of Floyd County’s primary cash crop." The last thing we need in these over-taxed times is yet another way to separate cash-strapped locals from their hard-earned bucks.

Park roads often serve as commuter routes. In the Washington area, the George Washington Parkway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the roads that wind through the National Mall — all parts of the federal park system — serve as primary routes during rush hour. I used them often during our 23 yeas in the National Capital Region.

Yes, the Parkway is far, far behind in maintenance projects but the crumbling roads exist not so much because commuters are pounding the pavement into dust but because the feds diverted much of the Parkway’s budget to other areas — like the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You find potholes and cracked pavement on the Parkway on areas not used by commuter traffic. Try driving south of Meadows of Dan and the pavement will pound your fillings loose.  The road there is in far worse shape than the stretch that runs from U.S. 220 to U.S. 460 in Roanoke County.

A major repaving and rehab project is underway on the stretch that runs down Bent Mountain but attention is needed elsewhere.

Perhaps the Parkway would be better served if elected representatives like Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) spent more time getting the Parkway funds for maintenance instead of concentrating on funding monuments to themselves like the Blue Ridge Music and Rockey Knob Visitor’s centers.

Perhaps those of us who drive the Parkway would be better served if the political appointees who run the Parkway would budget funds for upkeep instead of using limited resources to create Gestapo-like "criminal interdiction teams" to harass users of the region’s primary tourist attraction.

(Edited on March 28, 2009)

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11 Responses

  1. Doug,

    I read Dan’s article before you spun it here. I believe his intent was to promote thinking about solutions. I didn’t interpret it as you did, making him the leading advocate demanding tolls.

    It seems everywhere we turn these days more government incompetence is unveiled. Park type funding isn’t a new problem. Dragging war spending into the discussion seems a long way from talking about this specific issue. The money spent on those Gestapo days isn’t exactly an equal amount of money needed for road repair. I don’t support that kind of enforcement. This commuter situation needs some type of enforcement, or an alternative solution.

    The parkway wasn’t intended to be a commuter highway and it is restricted to certain types of traffic. It’s much easier to control tractor trailer use than jelly bean cars and keeping track of who is doing what.

    Your attitude and examples of common use for commuting sounds like some snobby local that knows all the short cuts wherever you have been.

    As it continues to deteriorate, you suggest more griping that has been ineffective for years. It’s disturbing to read the fairly small parkway staff has so many unfilled vacant positions.

    In our society, the daily commuters that think as you do will not be organizing any volunteer Fix the Road days. The Feds are not about to change in the near future in appropriations or management.

    Suggesting thinking about solutions and discussion is not Dan wants tolls.

    I don’t think it’s as complicated to do since the commuter abused sections are isolated and identifiable. Put tolls on the access points in those areas and leave the rest as is. Of course the big challenge is to make sure the money collected actually goes to the roadway.

    The most likely thing to happen is the road will get worse and people will start suing for car damages. Groan.

  2. The way I see it, the BRP was built (with taxpayer money?) for purposes other than serving as a short-cut for harried commuters.

  3. Is the Parkway really that bad? I drive on the Parkway between Tuggles and Smart View several times a month. That stretch is better than 90% of the roads in Floyd! A toll for the Parkway sounds foolish in my opinion. How much cash would need to be spent to set it up? How many visitors would need to pay the toll just to cover the overhead (federal employees, start up costs, etc.), let alone pay for road repairs? The commuters would spend the extra minutes on other roads and keep their cash. Those who drive the Parkway for pleasure would be far less likely to do so. In the end the taxpayers are going to foot the bill one way or another. This is a REALLY bad idea.

  4. Doug,

    I’ve been a big fan of your work for years. It is great stuff, and nobody hears that from me often. Thank you for linking to the column. I feel honored, really.

    You and I both love the parkway. That is our common ground. We may disagree on how its maintenance should be funded, but we both know that its funding is seriously lacking.

    You’re 100 percent right that it and other national parks have gotten screwed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The superintendent told me that himself in a public forum more than two years ago.

    One difference, however, is that most of those other parks have some revenue-raising options — because they impose fees on visitors. As things stand, the parkway doesn’t have that.

    The question is, what do we do now? How do we fund repairs to the pot-holed stretch south of Meadows of Dan? Even if those wars end, and neither has, yet, I don’t see that funding coming back unless the feds just print some more dollars. And soon, the buck will be worth less than Floyd scrip — I bet we agree on that, too.

    Fees might be one solution, especially in urban areas like Roanoke and Asheville, where the road is at times overrun by commuters. Or perhaps we should impose tolls only in areas like those. Come with me on the Famous Tuesday Night Ride sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

    I concede general-user fees would be less than ideal for places like Floyd County, and that rural communities like it encompass the majority of that beautiful road.

    But something needs to be done. As Jeffrey King notes above, the principal goal of my column was raising the question.

    Sincerely,

    Dan Casey
    http://www.roanoke.com

  5. …We do share a mutual love of the Parkway and agree on the need fo find a way to fund repairs and maintenance.  There’s a fee to drive through the Shenandoah National Park at the northern end of the Parkway but there is no entrance free for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the southern end. Like the Parkway in some stretches, the road that winds through the Smokies is a road used by local residents as a way to get from one place to the other.

    The web site for GSMNP addresses the question this way:

    The reasons for free entry to the national park date back at least to the 1930s. The land that is today Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once privately owned. The states of Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as local communities, paid to construct Newfound Gap Road (US-441). When the state of Tennessee transferred ownership of Newfound Gap Road to the federal government in 1936, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…” to travel the road.

    At that time, Newfound Gap Road was one of the major routes crossing the southern Appalachian Mountains. It’s likely the state was concerned with maintaining free, easy interstate transportation for its citizens. North Carolina transferred its roads through abandonment, so no restrictions were imposed.

    My grandfather was around when the Parkway was built and told me the issue of accessibility was a major concern in and around Floyd County because the road cut through some farms and farmers had to be able to cross the Parkway at some points and use it at others to feed their cattle and get to other public roads.  The Parkway, like dams that flood family farms, actually disrupted lives when it was built.

    In Floyd County, the Parkway is crossed by 57 roads, many of them back roads used by local residents. On a trip to North Carolina last year, I counted more than 200 places between Virginia Route 8 and the North Carolina line where the Parkway intersects local roads.

    To get from our family farm near Willis to Slate Mountain Presbyterian Church on Sundays, my family would drive down Rte. 799 (Now Connor Grove Road) to the Parkway and then a short distance on the Parkway to where 799 continued on the other side. Should they pay a toll just to go to church?

    My concern is how do we determine who is using the Parkway for a quick commute or to enjoy nature? I know many residents of Floyd County who use the Parkway to commute to Roanoke, both for work and pleasure. Do we also add a toll booth at the intersection at U.S. 221 on Bent Mountain?

    Far more commuter traffic in Washington uses the George Washington Parkway that runs from the Beltway west of Washington to Mount Vernon ahd the upkeep also comes out of the National Park Service budget. No tolls or user fees are required there.

    I love the Parkway. It occupies a special place in my heart. I’ve photographed it thousands of times, driven it from one end to the other in cars and ridden it on motorcycles. Hell, as a teenager, I lost my virginity at the Rocky Knob overlook on a Saturday night.

    But I would hate to see it become a toll road or one where a permit is required just to drive on it.

    Thanks for the note and the compliment. I like your stuff as well and am a regular reader. I’m glad to see we can disagree without being disagreeable.

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