Another Blue Ridge Parkway road closure this fall and winter points to the aging infrastructure that undermines this scenic road, the most visited unit of the National Park Service. A traffic light will be installed to direct traffic across a slope stabilization project scheduled to start during this fall’s color season and last through the winter 2012-2013.
The one-way traffic control will be erected at Milepost 358 on the lofty, scenic stretch between Craggy Gardens and Mt. Mitchell State Park. The traffic light will alternate passage of traffic 24 hours a day 7 days a week from September 24 until November 1, 2012. After November 1st, the affected 6.5 miles of the Parkway will be closed to traffic.
Slope stabilization accounts for this closure—and many others over the lifetime of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lloyd Middleton, Ph.D, an engineer for the Federal Highway Administration long associated with the Parkway, especially the Grandfather Mountain portion, understands the issues that often plague this scenic road. Middleton recently joined Superintendent Phil Francis to speak at a 25th anniversary celebration of the Parkway’s Linn Cove Viaduct, the classic span on Grandfather Mountain near Boone, North Carolina.
“When you consider the harsh environment of the area around Mount Mitchell (the East’s highest peak), with so much freeze and thaw,” Middleton said, “you need to look back long ago and realize this road was built by hand. The road was built to expose the back slope,” the road cut above the pavement, “and that means the area below, that supports the road, was created by fill material. That was, and still is, prone to failures—all the fault of how, and when, it was constructed in the first place.”
Today, engineers would excavate the “benches, the flat surface of the roads, and install sub-surface drainages below the road bed—but the old road fill techniques did not take that into account,” says Middleton, one of the Parkway’s master engineers. Thus, you have today’s failures, which have included a major 2009 closure near one of the Parkway’s most scenic spots, Craggy Gardens (see photo). The supporting road bed had to be rebuilt from the “ground” up—as will many more, no doubt.
The Parkway's Chief of Maintenance Engineering, Michael Molling, amplifies on the specific problem, referencing the photo that appears above with this article. "The problem we have at Milepost 358 is very similar to the photo taken at Craggy, where the retaining wall failed. We're basically doing the same thing, totally rebuilding the retaining wall from the bottom up and installing adequate drainage. We're using a very similar repair method."
The resulting detour will direct traffic away from the Parkway at Asheville, along U.S. Route I-40, and then to the Parkway up U.S. Route 221 or State Route 226. Buses and recreational vehicles will be encouraged to travel from I-40 on U.S. Route 221 all the way to the Parkway near the town of Linville Falls. The closure may interrupt the road a short distance near Mount Mitchell, but in effect, the break is likely to discourage traffic the entire distance between Asheville and Mount Mitchell—though the spectacular Craggy Mountains are always worth the effort for tbose who travel out to the closure then back to Asheville. Keep in mind, this severe weather area is very often closed to public access in the winter anyway. That suggests wishing workers good luck on their efforts this winter—forecasts point to a severe snow season.
From November on, this section of the Parkway will be closed to all visitors until April 2013 to ensure public safety. Closure gates will be installed at mile marker 355.3, just south of N.C. Route 128 to Mt. Mitchell State Park, and at mile marker 359.8, just north of the Balsam Gap Parking Area (a popular trailhead for the North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which will remain accessible).
Mt. Mitchell State Park will remain open from the northern approach along the Blue Ridge Parkway via State Route 80 (when not closed by snow, which it often is). Winter enthusiasts will be able to reach Balsam Gap from Asheville, to the south, a major trailhead for North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, but the connection to NC 128 and Mount Mitchell will be broken (except from the north and NC 80).
Michael Molling says the Parkway is "shooting to have one lane of the road open again by April 15th, with the full project completed by Memorial Day."
The Parkway’s announcement of the closure says that “management, understandably, apologizes for any inconvenience to our visitors and cautions the public to be aware of the installation of traffic lights and closure gates as the project proceeds to completion of this very important public safety project.”