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Life back to normal for park visitors, commuters

Marc Browning of Midlothian walks along a trail at Bloody Angle in the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield a day after the federal government shutdown ended on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Browning was on his way to Chantilly on a work related trip and decided to visit the battlefield since it had re-opened. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star)

With barricades down, tourists visited area national parks Thursday, and commuters hit the rails and roads after Congress approved a last-minute deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.

An indication that life was getting back to normal after 16 days of political gridlock was the sign outside the store next to the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center: “Museum Shop Open.”

That’s good news for Nelson and Virginia DeBrosse of Georgia, who were among those glad to have access to Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

The first leg of their journey was sightseeing in the Northeast, including some national parks and monuments.

“There were a lot of things we could not get into, because it was blocked off,” Virginia DeBrosse said.

Chris and Bill Ruth of Greeley, CO walk along a trail at Bloody Angle in the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield a day after the end of the federal government shutdown on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. The couple had hoped to visit Gettysburg National Military Park, but the park was closed while they were in Pennsylvania.

Still, “We got into Gettysburg; one road in the whole park was open.” They were among those who walked around barricades to visit the National World War II Memorial in Washington.

They didn’t have such luck at Manassas National Battlefield Park earlier this week, where the entrance was blocked.

DeBrosse smiled, “When we couldn’t get in there, I took a picture of the sign.” She posted that on Facebook, adding, “Does anybody know where we can trade a few-hundred politicians for some statesmen?”

On Thursday, their car was among about a dozen vehicles and an RV in the museum shop parking lot in Fredericksburg.

“People were here around 9 a.m.” buying items inside, said Margaret Haight, the manager. “That helps us a lot.”

The museum shop is operated by Eastern National, a nonprofit organization that supports National Park Service interpretive and educational programs. It has a presence at 150 national parks.

Anne Harris, an Eastern National region manager who oversees the shops at Virginia’s battlefield parks, said that when tourists aren’t buying books, flags, toys and other items, it hurts the parks, which get a percentage of the sales.

She was working for Eastern National during the last government shutdown in 1995–96, which lasted 21 days.

That was during the winter; this one hit during October, “Our third-busiest month,” she said.

Lucy Lawliss, superintendent of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania park, said the reopening went smoothly.

All employees are back to work, “and we’ve even got our volunteers coming back,” she said.

During the shutdown, only law enforcement rangers were on duty, “and they were very light-handed” dealing with people. “We discouraged people from entering” gated areas, Lawliss said.

“People understood. They didn’t like it, but they understood what this was and what we were being asked to do.”

Shenandoah National Park’s Facebook page announced that the park reopened Thursday morning. Dining and lodging facilities were to be up and running later in the day.

The Rev. Patrick Mahoney takes a prayer walk on a previously closed portion of Lee Dr. (Reza Marvashti/The Free Lance-Star)

RAILS AND RESTAURANTS

Officials of Virginia Railway Express, which experienced a 31 percent drop in riders during the shutdown, were breathing a sigh of relief.

“By all appearances VRE ridership has returned to the levels we were seeing in September,” VRE’s Mark Roeber said in an email Thursday. “That is great news because VRE’s ridership in September was the highest since February 2012.”

On Thursday, the first day federal workers returned to the job, VRE’s rider trips were projected to be more than 19,600, Roeber said.

That’s a big jump compared to the commuters using the trains during the shutdown.

The first week of the shutdown, VRE ridership dropped to an average of 14,420 a day. The second week was worse, with the total average dropping to 13,560 rider trips a day.

Restaurants outside federal installations look for better days.

Business had slowed at The Globe & Laurel Restaurant in North Stafford during the government shutdown, said an employee Thursday. The eatery just south of Quantico is expecting business to pick back up now, though it did have a couple of cancellations Thursday for people who expected to still be off work.

Donnie Johnston and Bill Freehling contributed to this story.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

 

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