History at bay in Valley Forge

Revolutionary War site being overrun by traffic and urban sprawl 'This park is at a crossroads'

January 02, 2000|By Jere Downs | Jere Downs,Knight Ridder/Tribune

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. -- Once a remote Revolutionary War encampment, Valley Forge National Historical Park is being overrun by the modern threats of traffic congestion and suburban sprawl, officials warn.

"Valley Forge is very much threatened," said Marie Rust, the National Park Service regional director. "It's a national and cultural resource that's being degraded by traffic and pollution from development."

Close to the King of Prussia mall, the Route 202 corridor and the booming Chester County suburbs, the park has traffic troubles that have become overwhelming, Rust said, since most commuters head toward Philadelphia. The most conspicuous problem, she said, is Route 23, which winds past the park's Colonial structures.

Route for commuters

On workdays, Route 23 routinely backs up with commuters who have made the road a preferred shortcut to avoid congestion on Routes 202 and 422 and the Schuylkill Expressway into Philadelphia.

Rust also said that runoff from development and vehicle traffic threatened park streams. And she lamented that too many suburban residents use the park for casual biking and walking without appropriate reflection on its place in history.

"This park is at a crossroads," Rust said. "It is a very special place. It's more than just a place to ride your bike and walk around."

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, in recently proposing remedies for gridlock in national parks, spoke about how light rail had been proposed to ease traffic jams on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and announced a $3 million federal program to introduce buses and real-time information kiosks to Acadia National Park in Maine.

"We have to encourage people to slow down and see what's out there on the other side of their windshields," Babbitt said. "Everywhere in this country, we are stuck in a rut in this auto culture we have fallen in love with."

At Acadia, propane-powered buses introduced last summer proved successful with tourists, said Michael D. Freitas, a Federal Highway Administration coordinator. The grant Babbitt announced will allow park officials to continue the bus program, and track campground and parking availability, to get that information to visitors, Freitas added. All these measures, he added, reduce car trips in and around the park.

The Acadia program is an example of how the National Park Service can take advantage of innovative federal transportation funding passed by Congress in 1998, Babbitt said.

Raising park's profile

While the answers are unclear for Valley Forge, where George Washington set up camp in the winter of 1777-1778, Rust said her staff had begun exploring how to raise the park's profile and defenses against traffic and development.

A study is in the works to assess the traffic problem. Plans are under way for a new visitor center; the current underground structure is inadequate to display a larger collection of Revolutionary War artifacts, she said.

Rust's comments coincide with the message that park officials have delivered in recent meetings with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which maintains Route 23, County Line Road and other byways in and near Valley Forge.

"We have had a couple of meetings where these issues have been raised," said Vito Genua, a Pennsylvania Transportation Department assistant district engineer. "I don't know how you turn the clock back on development."

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