HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — As part of the Maryland Bikeways Program, the Maryland Department of Transportation has awarded a $356,000 grant to the C&O Canal National Historical Park to develop an alternative access route for bicyclists and pedestrians who currently use the spiral staircase on the bridge over the Potomac River.
The grant is part of a $2.3 million bikeways program, provided by MDOT, to support design and construction projects that will improve bicycle connections in Maryland, according to a press release.
The program is part of the O’Malley-Brown Administration’s Cycle Maryland Initiative, although the alternative access route will have an impact within the Harpers Ferry corridor.
“These grants will ensure that in communities from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, we’re continuing our efforts to make bicycling a safe, healthy and affordable transportation option for more Marylanders,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said in the release.
Out of the $2.3 million in funding, the grant awarded to the C&O Canal for the more accessible route was the single largest award for this fiscal year, according to Michael Jackson, MDOT director of bicycle and pedestrian access.
Currently, the spiral staircase is the only way to access the canal from Harpers Ferry.
As an alternative, the park will design an access route to increase pedestrian mobility, according to Christopher Craig, chair of the trail and town alliance.
Craig said although the iron staircase is used frequently by some travelers, the route presents an issue when it comes to bicyclists and those with baby carriages or wheelchairs.
“It’s very usable by hikers and pedestrians, but it’s hardgoing and impossible for anyone with mobility issues,” Craig said.
In addition, the new access route will also help to facilitate tourism in the area, according to Jackson.
“It certainly benefits the users by giving them better access, but also with opportunities to stop for food and water,” Jackson said.
Craig, who also owns the Laurel Lodge in Harpers Ferry, said he has experienced issues with the winding staircase firsthand.
“We’ve heard stories of people who have not booked in Harpers Ferry or come into Harpers Ferry because of the issue,” he said.
In addition, while there have not been any reported accidents, Craig said that safety is another priority that the ramp will address.
“We don’t know of any (accidents), but it’s hard for me to believe there have not been,” Craig said.
The process to establish an alternative access route has been split into three phases. The grant is part of the second phase, so the park can perform an environmental study on the area and complete a design for the ramp. The third phase will be construction.
The feasibility study, which was phase one of the process, determined that the ramp will not only increase mobility for visitors and travelers, but it will also be the best choice to withstand flooding.
In addition to addressing safety and tourism concerns, the new design is anticipated to aid in the increasing number of bicyclists who use the canal trail.
“Bicycling is an increasing part of our tourism in the region. Thousands of bicyclists are using the C&O for long-distance and short-distance trips. We believe that it will really increase further in Harpers Ferry if we can get rid of this obstacle,” Craig said.