Great Falls Park would install a "fast pass" lane in which visitors would swipe a card to gain entry under a National Park Service proposal designed to reduce the waiting time during busy periods at the popular park next to the Potomac River.
Similar in concept to the fast pass system used on such area highways as the Dulles Toll Road, the technology would get cars through the park entrance more quickly. The goal, park officials said, is to diminish or eliminate the notoriously long lines along Old Dominion Drive that can stretch nearly to Georgetown Pike (Route 193) on weekends. Often those lines are the result of the slow rate of processing cars at the gate.
The fast pass proposal is one of several recommended by Park Service officials in a plan intended to guide management of the park for as long as 15 years. Other proposals include renovating the visitor center, eliminating a number of unofficial trails into the park and requiring permits for horseback riders and rock climbers.
A two-hour hearing to discuss a draft of the management plan will start at 1 p.m. Saturday at the park.
The 800-acre park, a favorite spot for picnicking families as well as hikers, bikers, climbers, kayakers and fishermen, is a part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. It is best known for its spectacular views of the Potomac River as the water drops 76 feet in a series of falls. The park, which draws about 450,000 visitors a year, also is the site of some of the preserved ruins of the Patowmack Canal, a project spearheaded by George Washington to make the Potomac a usable waterway.
Jon G. James, deputy superintendent of the parkway, said that adopting a management plan for Great Falls Park was part of an ongoing effort to create an overall plan for the 25-mile commuter route between Mount Vernon, the Capital Beltway and Great Falls.
Under the proposed traffic management plan, the park would keep the current "one vehicle out, one in" policy. When all 521 parking spaces are filled, which often happens on picturesque fall weekends, a car can enter only after another car has left. This contributes to the lines along Old Dominion Drive.
Park officials want to provide message boards along routes such as Georgetown Pike that would alert drivers to potential delays entering the park. Those signs would be in addition to the portable ones now used on crowded weekends. Officials would also offer a radio announcement to warn potential visitors about traffic conditions, according to the proposal.
In addition, the visitor center would be rehabilitated to improve exhibits and offer educational information. The Park Service would include additional interpretive programs to help visitors understand the history of the falls area. The center currently has offices, an auditorium, a bookstore, a food concession stand, bathrooms and an exhibit area. Under the proposal, two new buildings for administration and operations would be constructed in the park.
The proposal calls for the Park Service to prepare a trail management plan that would provide an inventory of permanent and so-called social trails, which are unofficial paths leading into the park that are used by pedestrians, horseback riders and bicyclists. Most of the social trails would be eliminated because they damage natural and cultural resources in the park, officials said.
The park also would prepare a management plan to designate rock-climbing areas, reducing those that harm natural and cultural resources. Great Falls Park would control access to the climbing areas by issuing permits, a system that also would apply to horseback riders. In addition, the plan asks for stables to house Park Police horses.
If implemented, the proposal would cost between $2.78 million and $2.95 million. The money would come from user fees and federal funds, James said.
A second, less expensive plan would keep the park largely as is, with few major changes. Park service officials do not back that plan, which would cost as much as $1.5 million. The Park Service could adopt a final plan combining elements of both proposals and is open to hearing fresh ideas from the public, James said.
"It's flexible. It's not a done deal," he said.
Great Falls Park manager Walter McDowney said he believes that if the preferred plan is adopted, visitors will notice a definite improvement. What complaints there might be could come from people upset about the closing of the social trails, he said.
Eleanor Weck, president of the Great Falls Trailblazers, which promotes the development of trails in the community, said the Park Service has been responsive to citizen suggestions throughout the draft proposal process. "I think generally the community is very pleased," Weck said.
However, she said, there are some concerns the trails group will present to the Park Service: The group would prefer that no trails be eliminated. If the trails threaten natural or cultural resources, the group would rather see the trails be moved. Weck also said no one in the Great Falls area would be keen on having additional signs warning visitors of crowded conditions.
Robin Rentsch of the Great Falls Historical Society said the plan adequately addresses park preservation issues. She agreed with Weck that the plan should balance preservation and recreational needs by trying to avoid eliminating trails.
A final decision on the plan is expected to be made this winter by the Park Service's regional director, Joseph M. Lawler, in consultation with Great Falls Park officials.
To comment on the plan, e-mail GWMP_Superintendent@nps.gov. In the heading, include "Attn: Great Falls GMP Team." Or mail a letter to Audrey F. Calhoun, Superintendent, George Washington Memorial Parkway, c/o Turkey Run Park, McLean, Va. 22101.