Asheville, NC (ACT) -- A crack down the center line of a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is growing and will keep one of the busiest sections of the busiest unit in the National Park Service closed indefinitely, with the potential for a crimp in summer vacation plans and negative economic impact.
The parkway was closed Friday from Milepost 375.6, a few miles north of Asheville, to Milepost 355 at N.C. 128 at Mount Mitchell State Park, for structural damage to the road just north of Tanbark Ridge Tunnel at Milepost 374, Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett said.
Along with October, July is the busiest month of the year on the parkway, which sees some 15.2 million visitors a year. The parkway see some 2 million visitors each July and each October.
The 20-mile closure, which includes the Craggy Gardens area, is for an indefinite amount of time, Stinnett said. The Federal Highway Administration, which oversees the parkway's roads, will send engineers Wednesday to assess the damage.
"We expect it will be significant. We're going to have to do major excavation," Stinnett said.
"It's clear to me the crack has expanded since Friday. It's 8-inches-wide by 5-feet-deep and 200 feet long," said Mike Molling, parkway chief of maintenance and engineering. On Friday, the crack was about 4 inches wide and 100 feet long.
Molling said construction on this section of the parkway began in 1936 and was completed in 1950. "It took a while because of the war, so work was halted between 1940 and 1945, and it was delayed because of the Tanbark Tunnel," he said.
The road underwent a paving project in 2010. A slope failure project at Milepost 358 near Mount Mitchell caused closure of this section from last November through Memorial Day. The entire parkway was only open for a little more than a month.
This section of roadway is the most direct route from Asheville to Mount Mitchell State Park. Rangers are installing detour signs and advising northbound drivers to exit the parkway at U.S. 70, take Interstate 40 east to N.C. 221 near Marion, all the way to the parkway. This route takes about an hour and a half, Molling said.
Closure one more hit to parkway
The popular Craggy Gardens area around Mileposts 367-363, including the visitor center, picnic area and road access to Craggy Pinnacle hiking trail, is closed.
Molling said most of the parkway, because of its age and mountainous terrain, is subject to erosion and slides.
"The entire parkway is built on a series of cut-and-fill slopes. Generallly speaking, cosntruction techniques in the '40s, '50s and '60s, they took the materials excavated on-site to use as fill," Molling said. "They didn't have the understanding of the characteristics of material used, the compactibility, the suitability for the rigors of freeze-thaw geology and mountain geology. Our techniques today are more advanced."
The section of parkway between Asheville and Mount Mitchell State Park is one of the highest, running higher than 5,000 feet elevation, and one of the most scenic. It has already been subject to a decrease in roadside mowing and overlook maintenance. Now the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center and picnic area are closed.
Stinnett said it is unfortunate the scenic views will be missed, but the closure is essential for safety of visitors and rangers.
"We're continually assessing the Craggy Garden closure, but by having people driving down there from Mount Mitchell, it would be a challenge for us to patrol that area," Stinnett said. "It would be dangerous for our rangers driving up and down there."
He said, as of now, the road closure only applies to motor vehicles. People on foot and bikes are still allowed to go behind the barricades. Once construction begins, however, the roadway will be closed to everyone.
Molling said he believes this most recent crack is most likely caused by the excessive rain in the Asheville area this summer, which has hit record levels.
"I think there's water infiltrating from the hillsides because of the amount of rain we've been having," he said. "There are so many little seeps and springs that can come into a fill slope like this from the hillside. Who knows how much water is actually in there."
The parkway road closure is another hit to the summer season on the parkway, coming on top of a 5 percent budget cut because of the federal sequester. The nearly $800,000 budget cut that was implemented March 1 caused facility closures, including the Crabtree Falls campground and picnic area, cuts to seasonal and permanent staff including maintenance staff, and delayed openings of campgrounds and visitor centers.
Acting parkway superintendent Monika Mayr said last year Craggy Gardens Visitor received 48,000 visitors between April-September. She said a N.C. State study showed the parkway has a $2.3 billion economic impact in local economies through which it passes in North Carolina and Virginia.
Karen Searle, regional manager for Eastern National, which runs the concession for the Blue Ridge Parkway, said she estimated the closure - if it lasts through September - will cost $70,000 in lost sales and jobs for three employees. The visitor center is normally open seven days a week.
"The Craggy Gardens store is the third largest of Eastern National's 13 stores on the Blue Ridge Parkway, after the Folk Art Center and the parkway Visitor Center (at MP 384), and July is our busiest summer month," Searle said.
Eastern National is a private, nonprofit partner to the National Park Service, which returns its proceeds to the parkway. The center sells books, maps, apparel and other parkway-approved commemorative items.
"The Craggy Gardens area was just beginning to survive again after the last closure. It was just beginning to be a bustling metropolis again," she said. "We're losing sales, but also a lot of visitor experiences. For someone who's not the typical national park traveler, the Craggy Gardens area is a way to get a sample of what the national park is all about."
Marla Tambellini, deputy executive director of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the agency will work with the parkway to help visitors seek alternative points of interest and adventure of the parkway.
"The parkway is one of the primary economic drivers to the region. It is significant," she said. "People use it as a roadway to scenic views and outdoors experience. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that visitors still understand that the parkway is still open in the Asheville area. We'll make sure there's an awareness of all the opportunities on the southern part of the parkway."