Transportation Funding Needed for National Park Service

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The National Park Service manages nearly 10,000 miles of roadways — 1,100 miles of which are major parkways.

GW-ParkwayGeorge Washington Parkway 04 2012 1403 by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons.

If the mention of transportation for national parks leads you to conjure images of dirt roads and unpaved trails, think again. The George Washington Memorial Parkway, a 25-mile-long stretch maintained by the National Park Service (NPS) along the south bank of the Potomac River, showcases a more accurate picture.

Those who fly in and out of Ronald Reagan National Airport may recognize the GW Parkway as a primary artery in and out of Washington, DC, one of the nation’s busier urban centers. But few may recognize the Parkway as a national park road. With a maintenance backlog of $11.6 million, the GW Parkway exemplifies the transportation funding crisis facing the National Park Service this year, along with other public land management agencies across the country.

Nearly one-third of America’s surface transportation systems are managed by federal agencies. As such, they serve as crucial channels to recreation, conservation and tourism interests in every major city and as central thoroughfares in gateway communities from coast to coast. These lands and waters include national parks and national forests, national wildlife refuges and more. Think Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York City, or Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

The backlog of National Park Service transportation projects accounts for $6 billion, or more than half of the Park Service’s total deferred maintenance backlog of $11.3 billion. Our federally-managed lands and waters are a national responsibility. Though located in some of the nation’s busiest urban centers, access to and through these areas is a national responsibility. It is a responsibility poorly served. Each time someone fills his or her gas tank, less than one penny per gallon goes to fund major national park roads, bridges and trails. To re-iterate, the backlog of national park transportation projects account for $6 billion, or more than HALF of the Park Service’s total maintenance backlog of $11.3 billion.

The National Park Service manages nearly 10,000 miles of roadways — 1100 miles of which are major parkways. Moreover, roughly 150 public transit systems, like buses, ferries, and trolleys operate at 72 national parks, many located in urban centers and gateway communities whose tourist economies depend on these transit systems. The National Park Service is responsible for more than 1500 bridges (including the Memorial Bridge in Washington DC), and 60 tunnels. And because most bridges and tunnels were built in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, they are in the second half of their service lives and therefore will require increasing amounts of funding for both maintenance and reconstruction in the years ahead.

As mayors and urban leaders focus their attention next spring on the reauthorization of the federal transportation law, MAP-21, they would be wise to support funding for America’s parks and other public lands when Congress develops a strategy to succeed MAP-21, particularly in light of the National Park System Centennial in 2016. The programs – and funding levels – for federal lands transportation have been largely unchanged for twenty years.

The next federal surface transportation program should include a new chapter addressing the federal responsibility for accessing our national lands. Municipal leaders should remember that of the 401 units managed by the National Park Service, more than half are located in urban centers. The nation should invest adequate funds to meet and maintain public lands system transportation needs, and mayors and city leaders must urge the use of Highway Trust Fund revenue for this purpose.

Karen Nozik's Head Shot blogAbout the author: Karen Nozik has served as the Director of Ally Development and Partnerships at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in Washington, DC since 2011. In previous experience, she was Communications Director for Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Boulder, Colorado, and Director of Outreach for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, working with communities to preserve and transform unused rail corridors into trails.