Conditions at virtually all 423 national park sites have worsened in recent years. Presidential administrations and Congress have continually shortchanged parks’ capital budgets. The result is crumbling roads and bridges, neglected historic buildings, and threatened environmental resources. According to a recent National Park Service (NPS) report, there is nearly a $12 billion backlog to get parks into good shape.
In Pennsylvania, Independence and Valley Forge National Historical Parks and Steamtown National Historic Site in President Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton are among the 19 national park sites here. In these three parks alone, there is a need for well over $120 million in upgrades to historical properties and cultural landscapes.
Some good news is that Washington stepped up last year to meet its obligation to restore national parks. The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) earmarks $9.5 billion over five years to make crucial repairs to public lands.
So, President Biden already has money available to implement a major infrastructure initiative — one for national parks. But rather than slotting the parks program in its own management silo, we can get more bang-for-the-buck by linking parks’ renewal programs with the critical transportation infrastructure needs of the gateway communities that adjoin them. Under this initiative, money invested in rebuilding a park’s infrastructure through the GAOA would be augmented by funding that Congress is expected to approve in the coming months for a broad infrastructure program. Much of the new investment, as proposed by President Biden, would be aimed at transportation improvements and environmental enhancements in big cities and small towns alike.
Steamtown, in the national park gateway city of Scranton, pays tribute to America’s railroad heritage. Let’s say, at the same time that NPS appropriates money to trim Steamtown’s repair list, the U.S. Department of Transportation earmarks funds to extend rail service from New York City to Scranton. Amtrak, a favorite of the president, has already proposed this plan. With the avowed backing of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for expanded rail service across the country, we can imagine this rail connection happening sooner rather than later. Direct passenger service between metro New York and Scranton would increase tourism to Northeastern Pennsylvania and attract many new visitors to Steamtown.
We can expect a similar upsurge to the economies of Norristown and King of Prussia, gateway communities to Valley Forge National Park. Envision this: While work gets underway to abate the park’s backlog of structural and environmental needs, new Federal Transit Administration grants jump-start the planned rail extension of SEPTA’s Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia. SEPTA forecasts that the clean-energy rail project’s around 6,000 construction jobs will boost the local economy. To complete the picture, SEPTA could institute shuttle service from the train’s terminus to Valley Forge National Park. Urban residents from the region, including many schoolchildren, would then have access — maybe for the first time — to a beautiful national park steeped in American history.
In Philadelphia, restoration of NPS properties around Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell might be complemented by federal transportation aid of another sort — to the city’s Bicycle Network. Planned improvements would lessen automobile use, reduce bicycle accidents, and provide a safe, nonpolluting way to get around the city. More bicyclists visiting the historic area would appreciate the awesome story of the nation’s founding. While in the neighborhood, they could patronize the shops and restaurants nearby. Secretary Buttigieg, an avid proponent of bike safety, might see the Philadelphia Bicycle Network as an excellent pilot for national implementation.
Pennsylvania’s national parks and their gateway communities could work together to launch this initiative. Then, when it’s applied across America, hundreds of national parks would be restored while their neighboring cities benefit from critical infrastructure renewal. Such an approach, bold by Washington standards, would ignite the comeback of our national parks, enhance environmental resources, and propel economic revival by providing good construction jobs and sustainable commerce. In a post-COVID world, this winning formula could help our country become vibrant and secure once again.
John Plonski is a volunteer for national parks and was formerly executive deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests, water commissioner of Philadelphia, and borough manager of Norristown.