On the Road to Ruin: Reauthorization of the Transportation Bill Should Address National Park Needs

Last Updated: August 26, 2013

The Challenge:

Roads and bridges in our national parks are in serious disrepair. The National Park Service estimates that road and trail repairs comprise $4.9 billion (more than 50%) of the $9-billion in infrastructure backlog facing our national parks. Many of the shuttle buses, ferries, and trails that enable visitors to access and enjoy national parks across the country are similarly in need of upgrade. The Park Service also estimates that the National Park System needs more than $800 million annually to improve its transportation infrastructure to acceptable condition by its centennial in 2016—well over three times the amount the agency currently receives under the existing transportation funding bill, SAFETEA-LU.

Road to Ruin: A recent Park Service transportation assessment found that:

  • 90 percent of the 9,450 miles of park roads are in poor or fair condition. By comparison, 14% of roadways classified as rural major collectors in the Federal-Aid Highways System are rated less than good or acceptable.
  • More than one in every three miles of trail are in poor or deficient condition.
  • One person is killed or injured on national park roadways every 4.5 hours. If the Park Service were a state it would rank 13th-highest for road fatalities and injuries out of the 50 states.

Current Funding vs. Needs: The Park Service will receive $240 million from SAFETEA-LU in fiscal year 2009 to build, repair, and renovate its roads and bridges (but not routine maintenance) through the Park Roads and Parkways program. It will also receive approximately $16 million through the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit in Parks Program to fund a portion of its transit and other alternative transportation systems, such as front country hiking and bike trails. These sums, however, are only a fraction of what the Park Service needs to repair and expand its transportation networks to ensure safe access to and travel in national parks. According to Park Service estimates released in 2007, the parks need $644 million for roads, $36 million for bridges, $60 million for transit, and $15 million for trails each year to bring them to acceptable condition.

Pay (a little) Now or Pay (a lot) Later: The deterioration of roads and bridges in our national parks is largely due to a lack of funding for regular maintenance. The Park Roads and Parkways program will pay for rehabilitation and reconstruction, but not for regular maintenance, so the fiscally-flawed incentive is to skip inexpensive regular maintenance and wait for the facilities to deteriorate to the point where they need expensive major work that will be funded by the Park Roads and Parkways program. Unlike states and localities, the Park Service does not possess independent taxing authority. It is, therefore, incapable of generating sufficient revenues to adequately maintain transportation facilities constructed under the Park Roads and Parkways program. This flawed part of the law needs to change.

Not a High Enough Priority: The High Priority Projects program in the federal surface transportation legislation could be an important source of funding for transportation projects in national parks and other public lands. However, the 80/20 cost-share requirement poses a virtually insurmountable obstacle to advance these projects as there are no non-federal partners on federal lands to provide the necessary non-federal match. Hundreds of communities across the country benefit from the tourism generated by our national parks. Good roads are needed to bring in visitors. To advance High Priority Projects for public lands, funding should be at 100% federal as similar projects are funded in the Federal Lands Highways Program.

Running on Empty: In addition to roads and trails, 81 parks offer transit systems such as shuttle buses and ferries. These systems, such as the Island Explorer at Maine’s Acadia National Park, are very popular and have improved both traffic congestion and visitor enjoyment of our national parks. SAFETEA-LU established the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit in Parks Program and made available a total of $72 million over five years to all public land agencies for the development of alternative modes of transportation such as shuttles, ferries, and bike and pedestrian trails. While the Park Service and its outside partners have been fortunate to receive approximately $35 million during the first three years of the Transit in Parks Program, it is far less than the $60 million the Park Service estimates it needs every year. Moreover, the program funds individual projects on an annual basis only and does not allow for a multi-year, comprehensive program approach toward meeting the transit needs in our national parks. It also does not provide critical funding for operations, thus forcing the national parks to borrow funds from other programs to keep the popular transit systems running.

The Road Ahead: Poorly-maintained transportation facilities in our national parks are not only a safety hazard to park visitors, they can also adversely affect local communities and their economies that depend upon the parks being accessible and park transportation facilities being in good condition. Without a very substantial increase in funding and an expansion in eligible expenditures for annual road maintenance and transit operations, the persistent decline in the condition of transportation systems in our national parks will surely continue.

The National Parks Conservation Association's Recommendations for SAFETEA-LU Reauthorization: 
1.  Increase funding for the Park Roads and Parkways program to at least $500 million annually.
2.  Expand eligibility of the Park Roads and Parkways program to include maintenance of roads, bridges, and pathways.
3.  Increase the federal share for High Priority Projects on public lands to 100% of their costs.
4.  Increase funding for all public land alternative transportation in the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit in Parks Program to at least $100 million annually with 60% guaranteed for the National Park System.
5.  Allow funds provided under the Transit in Parks Program to be used for multi-year alternative transportation projects and transit operations.

For more information: Please contact the National Parks Conservation Association's Laura Loomis at 202.454.3918 or lloomis@npca.org to discuss national park transportation issues.


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