News & Politics

Washington’s National Parks Need Nearly $1.2 Billion in Repairs

The National Park Service has a massive backlog of unfinished maintenance.

America's front yard is pretty splotchy in places. Photograph by Flickr user Katie Wheeler.

The maintenance backlog for DC’s public spaces administered by the National Park Service has gotten so lengthy, it would cost $1.195 billion to bring everything up to date. But there’s little chance of that happening when the parks budget has been slashed over the last five years, leaving some of the nation’s most treasured sites in states of chronic neglect.

The upshot? The Mall, the monuments that dot Washington’s skylines, and federally administered pocket parks like Dupont Circle may look pretty lousy when the Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016. That’s the assessment of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that watchdogs federal spending on the great outdoors. The NPS operations budget for the current fiscal year is down $173 million, or 7 percent, from 2010, while funds allocated for construction are down by $227 million, or 62 percent. That lays out a grim prognosis for the entire system’s $11.5 billion maintenance backlog, but it’s felt more acutely in DC, where the list of projects waiting for completion easily leads the entire agency.

While much of the Mall has undergone—and is still going through—facelifts over the past few years, there are dozens of more fixes needed across DC’s landmarks, ranging from cracked sidewalks along the Tidal Basin to the ceilings of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, both of which are missing chunks of Alabama marble, to the Arlington Memorial Bridge, which needs $240 million in repairs. The National Mall and Memorial Parks division needs $852.7 million. Rock Creek Park’s overdue jobs total $46.3 million, while the White House campus needs $12.6 million. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is $15.8 million in the hole.

“These numbers show the result of Congress’s chronic underfunding of our national parks,” says Craig Obey, the NCPA’s senior vice president for government affairs. “Failing to provide for the system’s basic maintenance needs has eroded our most treasured natural landscapes and historical sites. Unless Congress takes immediate and substantive action, the products of America’s best idea will only continue to fall apart.”

President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposes pushing the NPS budget up $432.9 million to about $3 billion. Even though NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis claims every dollar invested in upgrading parks yields a $10 economic bounce, it’s tough to expect that a Congress that has been slashing the agency’s budget so zealously for years will agree. The 34.2 million people who visited DC’s National Park Service sites in 2013 pumped $610.1 million into the local economy, according to an agency report.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.