Outdoors

Cost of National Park Service deferred maintenance tops $507 million in Washington

Anyone driving the roads through Mount Rainier National Park can spot the need for repairs and maintenance in the park. There are potholes caused by freezing and cracking, upheavals from tree roots, slumps from roadside washouts.

Visitors spending the night in the Paradise Inn Annex can tell the building needs work, from thin windows to sloping floors to old plumbing. The building needs a complete rehabilitation, from foundation to roof.

Those issues are part of the more than $298.3 million in deferred maintenance at Mount Rainier. Olympic National Park has $133.2 million in delayed work. In total, there is almost $507.2 million in unfunded repair projects at eight National Park Service units in Washington.

Nationwide, the Park Service puts the total for 2014 at $11.49 billion for 407 locations.

The Park Service describes “deferred maintenance” as necessary work on infrastructure — such as roads and bridges, visitor centers, trails, and campgrounds — that has been put off for more than a year.

Aging facilities, increasing use and scarce resources are the key factors to the growing backlog, according to Park Service managers.

Almost half the nationwide total, $5.63 billion, is for paved roads and structures within the park system.

At Mount Rainier, paved roads top the deferred maintenance list with an estimated cost of more than $222.5 million. Buildings are next at $32.9 million with trail work estimated at $10.2 million.

“The most obvious place visitors can see it is just driving the road system in the park,” Superintendent Randy King said. “Our road system represents two-thirds of the deferred maintenance in the park.”

Aging facilities and inadequate funding are the primary factors driving Mount Rainier’s deferred maintenance backlog, King said.

“The maintenance funds that are available at this and other parks are applied to high priority needs,” he added.

Each year, the park has $6 million to $8 million to spend on maintenance but would need another $4 million to $5 million to cut into the backlog of deferred maintenance, King said.

The estimate to replace the park’s infrastructure is $1.3 billion, according to the report.

With the money available, the park is working to reduce the backlog.

For instance, a few years ago, you could see daylight streaming through cracks in the wall of the Sunrise Day Lodge. The park has worked to resolve those “daylight issues,” King said.

Most notably, he said, work began last year on a $32 million project to rehabilitate the 17 miles of road from the Nisqually entrance to Paradise. The first phase of the project will continue this year.

Park officials also hope to begin a seismic stabilization project on the Paradise Inn Annex in 2017. The cost estimate is not complete but it might be about $15 million, King said.

Completion of that project would cut the building maintenance backlog almost in half, he said.

Work also will continue this year on the $1 million resurfacing of the Skyline, Alta Vista and Waterfall trails at Paradise.

CONCESSIONAIRE HELPS

In addition to using money from its own budget to cut into the backlog, the park is working with one of its partners to tackle projects at the Paradise Inn and elsewhere.

When the park signed a new contract in 2014 with Rainier Guest Services, the concessionaire agreed to take on deferred maintenance projects. The estimated value of the work is $2 million, said Mary Wysong, the park’s concessions manager.

“The park had 75 deferred maintenance items we’ve committed to fixing, such as replacing windows in the annex,” said David Wilde, chief operating office of Rainier Guest Services.

The concessionaire taking on more maintenance work will allow the park to spend its money on other projects, “of which there are myriads at Mount Rainier,” King said.

Among the projects Rainier Guest Services will be doing is replacing annex plumbing fixtures, such as sinks, showers, bathtubs and commodes, at the inn; and designing and installing fire suppression and alarm systems at Sunrise.

The work will be done in the first four to five years of the contract, Wilde said.

At Olympic National Park, maintaining more than 600 miles of trails tops the priority list, but the park receives just 9 percent of what is needed for that, spokeswoman Barb Maynes said.

The estimated cost of eliminating the backlog is $5.4 million, she added.

Like at Mount Rainier, road maintenance is the most expensive item, estimated at $106.9 million. Maynes said the park receives 55 percent of what is necessary for road maintenance.

The deferred maintenance on the park’s 468 buildings is estimated at $7.3 million.

“Within each of these categories, funding would be allocated first to highest priority assets with the greatest need,” Maynes said.

OUT OF STATE

While parks in Washington face challenges, Yellowstone National Park, in comparison, has deferred maintenance projects estimated at more than $655 million.

“As we invite more Americans to discover the special places in the National Park system during our centennial celebration (in 2016), we need to have facilities that can accommodate them and provide the best possible visitor experience,” Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in the news release.

In its $3 billion budget request for fiscal year 2016, the Park Service has requested $242.8 million a year to deal with the backlog. That would be in addition to a mandatory proposal to provide $300 million annually for maintenance over three years.

“Over 10 years that would get our most critical assets in good condition and keep them that way,” Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said.

With federal budget requests and proposed fee increases, King said he hopes enough money can be generated to quickly reduce the backlog.

“What we are really asking the country to do is reinvest in these public places and spaces for the next 100 years,” he said.

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