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Funding falls short for infrastructure needs on the Blue Ridge Parkway

The 500 miles of paved surface, 1,000 miles of road shoulder, 26 tunnels, 180 bridges and about 1,000 drainage structures along the Blue Ridge Parkway mean infrastructure work is a never ending endeavor. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

More than 16 million people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2017, more than any other national park unit in the country.

The natural resources along its 469-mile stretch create an allure that's hard to resist, but what makes the parkway so unique is also what makes it such a challenge to maintain.

The 500 miles of paved surface, 1,000 miles of road shoulder, 26 tunnels, 180 bridges and about 1,000 drainage structures along the road mean infrastructure work is a never ending endeavor.

"There's always work that needs to be done," said Mike Molling, chief of maintenance and engineering on the parkway. "We have work we're going to do on Linville River Bridge, that's coming up this fall. We have work we're doing right along the state line in North Carolina. There are three bridges up there that need to be replaced. We're doing some paving work just north of Roanoke in Virginia this year, as well as doing some pavement preservation work in North Carolina."

The funding

The parkway typically receives $7-10 million a year for paving, bridge work and tunnel repair projects from a pool shared among other national parks in the Southeast. Those funds are generated through the national gas tax, which hasn't changed since 1993, a major factor in the parkway's deferred maintenance backlog of $461 million, 90 percent of which is from paved roads.

Carolyn Ward is the CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a non-profit organization providing support for parkway initiatives.

"So, if you think about the Blue Ridge Parkway, most of the visitors that come, come to drive the road and see the beautiful vistas," Ward said. "If you're not upkeeping asphalt, it gets potholes, it breaks, you can have issues where it can fail."

Aging pavement

Industry standards estimate pavement life of roads like the parkway at about 20 years. Statistics from 2017 show the parkway has 253 miles of pavement that are 20 years old or older, more than 80 percent of which is more than 30 years old.

With funds available over the last five years, the National Park Service has only been able to pave seven to 10 miles per year.

"There is just not a large enough pot of money coming from the federal government, whether it's funding for the National Park Service or in federal highways, to meet the existing needs," Ward said.

Many drivers may hardly notice the effects of the aging asphalt.

Duane Hendricks and several of his motorcycle riding companions took a road trip on the parkway in the middle of April, stopping for a short break at the Craggy Gardens Overlook.

"The roads are amazing," Hendricks said. "We're from Minnesota, and we've got frost heaves and chuck holes, all that stuff. Up here, the roads are beautiful, and we just love riding on them."

Certain sections of road are showing more wear than others, especially in higher elevations where ice can linger into the late spring.

The work

The parkway's maintenance and engineering unit uses a five-year priority plan, which is constantly updated, to stay on top of the most essential road projects so the parkway can stay open.

"We always maintain that we want to fund the highest priority project first," Molling said. "It's a big deal for us to close the parkway because of a bridge or a tunnel or road project, but it does happen."

When the parkway closes, communities that rely on the financial boost from visiting tourists can feel serious economic strain. In 2017, visitor spending on the parkway topped $1 billion, with more than $1.4 billion in economic output for gateway communities.

Closures because of construction can mostly be avoided by keeping one lane open while work is done on the other. But unforeseen damage and certain projects, like ongoing work at the Linn Cove Viaduct, can require shutting down miles of road in both directions.

"That bridge was finished back in the mid '80s," Molling said. "It was the last piece of construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway. That was the missing link, if you will, and so the deck that is on there was original material."

Crews are replacing asphalt and a waterproof membrane on the famous bridge with an expected completion date sometime this May, but other projects will bring single lane closures and slow downs to Western North Carolina this summer.

Multiple stretches of the parkway will have pavement preservation work completed in an effort to extend the life of the asphalt, instead of repaving the road completely, which is much more costly. (See below for the exact mileposts for this work.)

While these projects help keep roads open in the short term, funding needs in the future on the parkway remains hazy, especially since more than half of its pavement is already over the estimated lifespan.

"My ultimate fear is that if the pavement and the backlog deferred maintenance needs do not get addressed, then the visitors are going to stop coming," Ward said. "These are our great cathedrals. In America, these are our iconic things that we hold up as part of our history and our heritage, and it is our responsibility to take care of them."

National Parks in the United States receive less than one tenth of 1 percent of the annual federal budget. Some parks have recently increased admission fees to help offset their own deferred maintenance costs, but the Blue Ridge Parkway does not charge admission.

Officials said the best way for people to help is through volunteering and donations to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has contributed $1.2 million this year to help with various projects on the parkway, including restorative work to overlooks and buildings.

Road work

Pavement preservation work is scheduled from May through September between the following mile markers:

North Carolina

  • MP 424-469 Near Devil's Courthouse to the Southern Terminus
  • MP 359-413 North of Craggy Gardens through the Pisgah Inn Area

Virginia

  • MP 121-135 Near Adney Gap (May through June)
  • Paving work is expected from MP 27-37 near Whetstone Ridge from March to July.
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