The National Park Service is stuck in $11.3 billion hole, but jacking up fees isn’t the way out

Three years ago, the National Park Service banned trucks and buses heavier than 10 tons from crossing over the Arlington Memorial Bridge, a major transportation artery connecting Virginia to Washington D.C. And there’s speculation that the U.S. Secret Service now refuses to cross the 82-year-old concrete span, though the agency would not confirm whether this was the case. From afar, the bridge’s neoclassical design — finished with sculptures of eagles and bas relief of bison — looks glorious. But inside, it’s rotting.

“Most people would be horrified to look behind the curtains of parks,” said Robert Manning, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

The Park Service has quite a maintenance liability, accumulating an over $11 billion backlog in the upkeep of historic structures, trails, and roads that need to be repaired, and in some cases, held up. The agency is budgeted around $3 billion a year for the totality of its operations, which Manning notes, is less than one-tenth of one percent of the federal budget.

An influx of money is the obvious way to solve the parks’ structural woes, but it’s unlikely Congress will appropriate enough funding in the near term to shore up this failing infrastructure. For this reason, a group of around 150 sustainability experts, technologists, and business leaders are gathering in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area this weekend to conceive novel solutions to address the backlog.

The ideas produced during the “Parks and Tech Challenge” event, hosted by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the consulting company CivicMakers, will be vetted by a panel of park experts.

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