A hallmark of driving the Blue Ridge Parkway - and most national park roads - has always been the rustic stone or wood guardrails that line the roadway.
But now, that could all change. A few years back, the Federal Highway Administration told the National Park Service at Blue Ridge Parkway that NPS needed to upgrade its guardrails to bring them up to FHA's safety mandates.
Throughout the history of the parkway, there have been five styles of guardrails. Currently, they are predominantly wood rails with concrete posts, Mr. Gary Johnson, the parkway's chief of planning, told me.
While the rails right now are essentially rotten and in desperate need of repair -- that's not the issue with the FHA.
Rather, it's FHA's mandate that there be a 12-foot "clear zone" on either side of the road. Any trees, rocks, or other fixed objects within this clear zone must be removed, according to FHA. As you can imagine, the Park Service didn't appreciate another agency telling it to chop down the ancient trees growing along the parkway. Moreover, the safety measures mean placing additional railing both along the road in places where there hadn't been any before, and near the entrance to tunnels and bridges to "redirect" wayward vehicles onto the road.
This caused concerns with NPS staff members about the cost of such an undertaking, and a change in the parkway's historic/visual character. Not only would the new railing be expensive, but NPS would have to switch from large tractor mowers to weed-eating most of the parkway by hand - a laborious, expensive process.
To placate FHA, the parkway undertook an analysis of automobile accidents and found three very important things:
• 65% of crashes involved deer or other animals darting out onto the highway
• Most other accidents involved people driving too fast
• Finally, there aren't many places along the parkway where people were driving into bridge walls or tunnel portals
NPS went back to the Federal Highway Administration with its data and argued that the need for bringing the parkway up to code by adding the extra railing should be balanced with the need for historic preservation.
"The Blue Ridge Parkway isn't your normal road, and drivers know that...in fact, guardrails sometimes hamper drivers because they aren't expecting them," Mr. Johnson told me.
After much deliberation, the FHA agreed, to a certain extent, with the Park Service. Now FHA is only requiring an 8-foot clear zone, and the two agencies have partnered with a consulting firm to determine methodology to decide where to place the new railing (all old railing is being replaced).
"Looking at the historical accident data was a turning point for us...we're looking to find the trouble spots and fix them," Mr. Johnson said.
The parkway hopes to roll out the new safety measures later this year.
Funding for the new rails is being provided from the Park Service's construction budget. While the average visitor might notice the new railing, it will be a gradual changeover. Great Smoky and Shenandoah national parks have already made the changes required by FHA, but it wasn't an issue for those parks.
"The Blue Ridge Parkway is a cultural resource park, whereas GRSM and SHEN are mostly natural resource parks, and since the parkway is our primary resource, we look very closely at proposed changes to it. We want to maintain the original design of the Blue Ridge Parkway," Mr. Johnson said, explaining NPS's hesitancy to follow the original FHA regulations.
Thankfully, the two agencies have come to a reasonable compromise, and the Blue Ridge Parkway will remain, (relatively) unmarred, for years to come.