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Dan Casey: Blue Ridge Parkway cyclists hit bump in road
Blue Ridge Parkway officials have made it all but impossible for the Tuesday Night Ride to remain an organized event.
The Roanoke Times | File 2012
Cyclists participating in the Tuesday Night Ride climb Mill Mountain. The Blue Ridge Bicycle Club will no longer sanction the ride because of a regulation that Blue Ridge Parkway officials suddenly decided to enforce.
The Roanoke Times | File 2012
Jeff Crenshaw of Vinton (center) and other cyclists wait to take off for the Tuesday Night Ride. Crenshaw said he has participated in the ride for six or seven years. “It’s fun, and the beer is cold afterwards,” he said.
Monday, March 11, 2013
Since at least 2002, and probably before that, bicycle riders have gathered at the Virginia Museum of Transportation for a weekly celebration of pedal power.
Known widely as the Tuesday Night Ride, it’s a 20-mile loop that includes 8 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the best bike-riding roads anywhere. An average of 40 riders participate, but on warm evenings those numbers can swell to 75 or 80.
Afterward, many of the riders gather for food and fellowship and beer upstairs at Cornerstone Bar & Grill on Campbell Avenue in Roanoke.
Though I haven’t participated in a few years, I was one of the Tuesday Night Ride’s earliest organizers. It’s been an official ride of the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club since at least 2003 or 2004, and I was president of that organization in 2006. (I’m no longer a member.)
The ride normally kicks off the first Tuesday after daylight saving time, which is today. But last week, Blue Ridge Bicycle Club President Chris Berry pulled the plug, after months of back-and-forth with Blue Ridge Parkway authorities and Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s office.
There is no longer any club-sanctioned Tuesday night ride on the parkway, Berry wrote to members. Why? Because parkway authorities have hauled out an old regulation and are suddenly attempting to enforce it in a way that could quickly bankrupt the 175-member club.
This was spelled out in a February letter from parkway Superintendent Phil Francis to Goodlatte.
The club, Francis wrote, would have to apply for a $60 annual permit. It would have to provide $1 million worth of liability insurance for the ride, naming the parkway as the insured. The ride would be banned during October’s prime autumn viewing season. Most onerous of all, the parkway would bill the bicycle club any time its police officers “monitored” the ride.
That could easily run into hundreds of dollars for every week the ride was “monitored,” Berry told me. The club’s entire budget is under $5,000 or so per year. A portion of that is given away to local nonprofits.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling to me,” Berry said.
Friction between local bike riders, commuters and the parkway police goes way back, and most of it centers on the Tuesday Night Ride. Evening commuters have long complained that riders hog the road during the event; riders have also complained about motorists threatening them.
I’ve ridden the ride hundreds of times. Conflicts are much more the exception than the rule.
Berry said one big problem is that the National Park Service has been unwilling to estimate how often officers would monitor the ride, how many officers would be deployed, and for how many hours on each occasion of monitoring. The parkway would charge $60 per hour per officer — so a two-hour stint by two officers would cost the club $240 for one ride, not counting the costs of insurance or the annual permit.
That’s left the club not knowing how much it could potentially be on the hook for.
Steve Stinnett, chief ranger for the parkway, said, “Our goal is to provide for the safety of the riders and public using the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
So in his message to bicycle club members Thursday, Berry did a smart thing. He pulled the parkway ride from the club’s calendar. The club will still meet today at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, for two non-parkway rides, and gather afterward at Cornerstone.
Berry also noted he could not stop riders from riding on the parkway if they wished to. He asked them to disavow that they were riding with the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club if authorities asked.
What this means is an unsanctioned parkway ride will happen anyway. Nothing is likely to change, despite the federal case parkway authorities are trying to turn it into.
“I think that’s really unfortunate,” Francis said. But what else could the club do?
The 469-mile parkway has many problems. Its road maintenance budget is backlogged to the tune of $300 million; budget cuts have forced it to leave dozens of positions unfilled, including more than one-fifth of field police officers. These are much bigger problems than 40 cyclists on the parkway for an 8-mile stretch once a week for 20 minutes.
Berry suggested the Park Service drop the speed limit from 45 to 35 mph between U.S. 220 and U.S. 460. Francis ordered precisely such a change in the highly trafficked Asheville, N.C., area last year.
Francis told me Monday he would consider a lower speed limit in the Roanoke Valley. He also said he’ll ask his staff if they can give the club some kind of firm estimate of police monitoring costs.
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