What do national parks and Washington’s Metro have in common?

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Two high-profile public service systems mark big birthdays this year: The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 100th anniversary and Washington’s Metrorail system turns 40.

{mosads}At first blush, these two entities are strikingly different. One is a technological workhorse used largely to move legions of commuters and tourists around the nation’s capital. The other showcases some of our country’s most storied landscapes and cultural sites, offering millions of people each year an escape from the daily grind.

But the NPS and Metro have something unfortunate in common: Both are grappling with how to pay for repairs to aging infrastructure in order to avoid endangering users and staff and falling short of their promise to the American people.

The costs are not trivial. The NPS estimates that fixing its deferred maintenance backlog would cost $11.9 billion. Metro’s backlog would cost $16 billion to fix over 15 years, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Visitors to many national park locations, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and the Statue of Liberty, encounter closed trails, limited access to facilities, reduced services and potential safety hazards that impede enjoyment of our nation’s most spectacular wild landscapes and historic treasures.

That’s no way to celebrate a centennial.

Why do our national parks need regular maintenance? First, NPS manages not only the land but also more than 10,000 miles of roads within the parks, along with trails, restrooms, campgrounds, electrical and water systems, and myriad other facilities that make our parks such desirable destinations.

Second, the National Park System includes thousands of historic buildings and cultural assets, such as Abraham Lincoln’s home and cliff dwellings in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. Many of these are structures that need routine care and maintenance to ensure they do not succumb to time, weather and wear from a constant stream of visitors.

Such maintenance needs have hit home in the Washington area. The Arlington Memorial Bridge, an iconic structure in the nation’s capital connecting Arlington National Cemetery with the Lincoln Memorial, is among the roadways overseen by the NPS and needs $250 million in repairs; without them, warns NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, the bridge will become unsafe for driving and be suitable only for foot traffic by 2021. The agency’s Washington-area repair list also includes portions of the National Mall, the George Washington Memorial Parkway and historic sites such as Ford’s Theatre.

Now, with park visitation nationwide reaching record highs — 307 million in 2015 alone — it’s time for Congress to make fixing our parks a national priority. There are five reasons why: preservation, access, revenue, kids and safety.

Maintaining the parks preserves our nation’s historical and cultural treasures for present and future generations, while accessibility to all visitors is threatened when routine maintenance lags. On the revenue side, the NPS just released an updated report showing that every tax dollar invested in the NPS generates $10 in economic activity. In 2015, visitors spent $16.9 billion in communities within 60 miles of national park sites — helping to support 295,000 jobs and ultimately creating a $32 billion benefit to the economy.

Parks offer our children three-dimensional educational and recreational experiences, with no batteries or passwords required. Connecting kids to our parks offers families affordable, healthy options for spending time together and can foster a strong appreciation for our country’s rich natural and cultural heritage.

Finally, we need to make sure our parks are safe, which means infrastructure repairs for everything from unstable guardrails to worn wiring to inadequate wastewater treatment systems.

This is not the first time the NPS has faced a funding shortfall. In 1956, when our parks were deteriorating after decades of use, Congress approved a plan, called Mission 66, to address flagging conditions within 10 years. By 1966, workers had built approximately 100 new visitor centers and addressed other maintenance needs that improved the guest experience throughout the park system.

During this centennial year, Congress needs to embark on another mission to get our national parks back on track. That effort should start with guaranteed annual federal funding to address national park infrastructure needs, innovative policy and management reforms, and increased opportunities for public-private partnerships. Our national parks, often referred to as “America’s best idea,” need not join Washington’s Metro as a public trust succumbing to systemic maintenance failure. 

Reichert is executive vice president of the Pew Charitable Trusts.


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